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How do Victorian Era attitudes towards death and grief differ from our own? In what ways is grief a universal human experience that transcends time, place, and culture? Explore this key theme through Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘Grief’ (1844).
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
ABBA ABBA CDECDE
Simile and synonyms
Frequently noted imagery
Death, the celestial, stone, barrenness
Informative and authoritative
Grief and death
Here, we will be considering the biographical, historical, and literary contexts of the poem.
The poet, at the time of writing, was familiar with grief. When she was twenty, Elizabeth Barrett Browning mourned the death of her mother with her ten siblings and their father. Then, in 1840, she lost two of her brothers, Samuel and Edward, within mere months of one another.
Her brother Samuel had been sent to help run their father’s plantations in Jamaica. He succumbed to a fever in February 1840. Her brother Edward died in a sailing accident in Torquay in July. Barrett Browning is reported to have felt a sense of survivor’s guilt regarding the death of Edward. She suffered from lung issues, and her brother accompanied her to the seaside town so she could benefit from the clean air. Among her many siblings, the two were very close, and she nicknamed him ‘bro’. After his death, she returned to Wimpole Street in London and became reclusive, barely leaving her room.
This poem, published in 1844, is widely believed to have been written shortly after her beloved brother Edward’s death.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a poet of the Victorian era. There was a much higher mortality rate in this time period than in modern times, and the literature of the Victorian era is known for its focus on death and grief.
Referred to by some as a ‘cult of death’, the Victorians were interested in the process of dying, death, and grief. Grieving friends, spouses, and relations often kept mementoes, such as hair clippings, and had photographs taken of fresh corpses in lifelike poses.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) lived during the time of the Romantic literary movement as well as the Victorian era (1837–1901). However, her poetry can be interpreted as belonging to the Romantic period (1785–1832).
Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility (William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1801).
Widely considered one of the founders of Romanticism, William Wordsworth defined poetry in this way. In ‘Grief’, the speaker of the poem appears to be reflecting, in an informative manner, upon the nature of the raw emotion of grief.
How else do you think ‘Grief’ (1844) fits with Wordsworth’s thoughts about poetry?
The exploration and expression of emotion and feeling.
‘shrieking and reproach’
‘Deep-hearted man, express Grief for thy dead in silence like to death’
The poet contrasts the different stages and expressions of grief.
The sublime, use of the imagination to convey intangible concepts.1
In souls as countries’
The poet explores the nature of the human soul.
A melancholy mood.
‘In everlasting watch and moveless woe’.
In keeping with the key themes of the poem, death and grief, the mood is melancholy.
‘Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute heavens.’
‘Beat upward to God’s throne’
In dealing with the theme of death and grief, Browning makes reference to the Christian God and his residence.
After reading the poem, try to unpack the various layers of meaning by examining its themes as well as its form and structure.
I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,
In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy dead in silence like to death—
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:
If it could weep, it could arise and go.
Elizabeth Barret Browning uses imagery throughout this sonnet that reminds the reader of death. This imagery also helps the reader understand the speaker’s perspective on the expression of different kinds of grief.
She also makes use of simile to compare a concept, raw grief, to a tangible object, a statue. The poet also employs a variety of synonyms for grief throughout the poem, emphasising the focus on this emotion.
Simile: a simile is a comparison that compares one thing to another using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’.1 For example, ‘he is as cunning as a fox’.
Synonym: an alternative word choice that has the same or a highly similar meaning to the original word.1
Barrett Browning refers to the Christian concepts of heaven and God through imagery of the celestial. This is first seen in the lines ‘through the midnight air Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access’. Christian theology proclaims that God is the ruler of heaven and that the souls of good people dwell there. This explains the grieving cry upwards to the heavens, where they hope their departed loved ones have gone.
Celestial imagery is repeated in the lines ‘Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare Of the absolute heavens’. This references the theological concept that the heavens are occupied by God, the angels, and the deceased, and that these celestial entities watch over the living.
Barrett Browning uses imagery that conjures up the concept of barrenness, such as ‘Full desertness’, ‘the dust’, and ‘silent-bare’. This imagery reflects the sense of emotional hollowness that deep grief brings.
The imagery of stone is significant because it represents the expression of grief in its rawest form. It is used poignantly in the lines ‘like a monumental statue set In everlasting watch and moveless woe’. Here, the immobilising nature of grief in the bereaved is exaggerated. It is compared to a statue through the use of a simile. This concept is also shown through the lines ‘the marble eyelids are not wet’, which express the speaker’s view that it is impossible to summon tears whilst in the deepest throes of grief.
Barrett Browning uses the term grief and its synonyms, including ‘despair’ and ‘woe’. This ensures the poem’s focus remains on this emotion.
Here, we will be considering the poem’s title, form, structure, and rhyme scheme.
The title, ‘Grief’, is a simple but effective way of informing the reader of the poem’s key theme.
‘Grief’ is a Petrarchan sonnet.
The Petrarchan sonnet was named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca and is also known as the Italian Sonnet. It features fourteen lines and usually focuses on one key theme.1 The Petrarchan sonnet is divided up into two parts, the first one being an octave and the second part being a sestet. The sestet is usually marked by a ‘volta’, a turn in the idea or thought in the poem.
In prose, we use paragraphs to break up texts. A new paragraph often features a new idea. How can a poet use the structure of the poem to convey a change in direction?
Octave: coming from ‘octava’, meaning the eighth part, an octave can be a poem of eight lines, a stanza of eight lines, or eight lines within a poem.1
Sestet: coming from ‘sestetto’, meaning six, a sestet refers to the last six lines of a Petrarchan sonnet and can also refer to a stanza of six lines.1
Turn or ‘volta’: the introduction of a new concept or the clarification of an existing idea within the poem found in the latter part of the poem.1
This poem is fourteen lines long and consists of an octave and a sestet.
In the octave, the speaker informs the reader of the form that hopeless grief takes. She describes it as ‘passionless’ and compares it to the noisy outbursts often associated with the bereaved. The speaker suggests that those who are deeply affected by grief are unable to make noisy shows of their feelings. The speaker further expresses the hollowness of spirit and the silence of those grieving.
In the sestet, the speaker reaffirms that those who are suffering from the rawest form of grief are not able to outwardly express this with tears, wailing, and other effusive outward expressions of emotion: ‘If it could weep, it could arise and go’. In this final line, Barrett Browning suggests that being able to cry is the first step in being able to move on from the depths of hopeless grief. The speaker suggests that being able to cry releases the bereaved from the darkest depths of grief.
This poem uses iambic pentameter and features the rhyme scheme that is typical of Petrarchan sonnets: ABBA CDDC EFGEFG.
The iambic foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, for example, destroy. When the iambic foot repeats five times, it is called iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is the most commonly used meter in poetry.
Petrarchan sonnets usually deal with one key concept. In the case of ‘Grief’, it is the linked themes of grief and death. Those grieving are separated into two groups, the silent and the noisy. The speaker expands upon their viewpoint regarding the different kinds of grief, suggesting those in the deepest clutches of grief are silent and consumed by their feelings.
‘Grief’ (1844) is thought to have been drawn from the poet’s own experiences of bereavement, having lost two brothers within months of each other.
‘Grief’ is a Petrarchan sonnet with a conclusive turn in its final line.
This poem focuses on grief, exploring the different stages that the bereaved pass through as they come to terms with the loss of their loved ones.
The poem expresses the mismatch between feelings and their outward expression often experienced during bereavement.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a Romantic poet.
1 Collins Dictionary (Collins, 2022).
The main theme of the poem ‘Grief’ is grief.
‘Grief’ was written in 1844.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the poem ‘Grief’.
The meaning of the poem can be interpreted as an explanation of the deepest stage of raw grief.
The poet’s personal bereavements.
Which type of poem is 'Grief' (1844)?
A Petrarchan sonnet.
Which of the following is NOT imagery used in 'Grief' (1844)?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning had experienced personal bereavements prior to writing 'Grief' (1844).
How many lines long is 'Grief' (1844)?
How many lines long is a sestet?
How many lines is an octave?
What is a 'turn'?
A new concept or a clarification of a concept introduced towards the very end of a poem.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a Romantic poet.
Which of the following is NOT a characteristic of Romanticism?
An appeal to the five senses.
How many themes do Petrarchan sonnets usually explore?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning felt partially responsible for her brother Edward's death.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning felt partially responsible for her brother Samuel's death.
Which best describes the tone of the poem?
Informative and authoritative.
What device does the poet use to compare the grief of the bereaved to a marble statue?
What does the poem suggest is the first step towards recovering from the deepest form of grief?
Being able to cry.
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