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A Poetics of Reciprocity: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Ballads and Sonnets

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posted on 2021-11-12, 02:24 authored by Sneyd, Rose Harriet

This thesis considers the way in which a selection of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (henceforth to be referred to as EBB) exhibits what I will refer to as a poetics of reciprocity. My focus is on EBB’s ballads of the 1830s and 40s, her amatory sonnet sequence Sonnets from the Portuguese, and those ballads found in Last Poems. Lyric poetry is, traditionally, said to be defined by a monologic lyric speaker. Mikhail Bakhtin, for instance, pronounced that the mono-stylistic and cohesive nature of poetic language distinguished it from novelistic prose. However, it was, in part, Bakhtin’s insistence that poetry was by definition monologic that triggered my dialogic investigation of EBB’s poetry. Despite the range of work, both formal and temporal, that I consider in these three chapters, the discussion is nevertheless united by a consideration of EBB’s fascination with language, and her concomitant departure from the conventions of the monologic lyric speaker. In her early ballads, I explore EBB’s presentation of unreliable speakers and protagonists. These figures prove elusive to read because of their use of duplicitous or untrustworthy language, or they falter in the act of interpretation themselves. In EBB’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, I consider the way in which the poet opts for the language of conversation to evoke, in a fresh and powerful manner, the love between her speaker and her beloved. I suggest that this strategy, in part, compensated for the way in which clichéd literary language used to describe the experience of loving had been drained of vigour. Finally, in Last Poems I consider EBB’s presentation of speech as a social act that is influenced by the speaker’s status in society. In these late ballads, women’s attempts to wield language in an effective way are demonstrated to be dependent upon various conditions that reduce or enhance the potency of their speech acts. While Bakhtin’s essay “Discourse in the Novel,” in addition to the work of critics such as E. Warwick Slinn and Marjorie Stone, has been vital to the formulation of my thesis, I have, largely, relied upon a formalist approach to EBB’s poetry. In my close readings I examine EBB’s interrogation of language in her ballads and sonnets in light of her conscientious use, in particular, of metre and rhyme.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

English Literature

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Thomson, Heidi