Elizabeth Barrett and the “Perjured Eye”

Kate Spies

Blog Post #2 – On Browning and Barrett, Revised

English 402 – Lives and Letters

I think Elizabeth Barrett grapples with a key conflict that addles the writer, a conflict that we discussed in the first weeks of Lives and Letters: the “perjured eye.” Barrett’s personal struggle may not be with this particular challenge at all — it’s not as if she says it outright, even — but on some level, she expresses to Browning a struggle with her identity as a writer and her place as a being weighed by a powerful, stirred and creative soul. Through her poetry she outlines her difficulty in honestly and naturally depicting both of these selves. How do writers accurately reflect all that they’re feeling to their readers — without being overwhelming or inaccessible? How does one write in a way that is “clear and not commonplace”? as Aristotle writes in Ars Poetica? I link this phrase from the Greek philosopher to the idea of maintaining one’s uniqueness and power in writing, but keeping diction comprehensible and distilled as well. Barrett seems to be rolling these questions around in her head as she composes her poetry, and throws them out to Browning to ponder, too. I am thinking particularly of her comments in one of the first letters in this section, where she references her Italian master and his repetition of the word testa lunga to describe her. It seems he admonished her frequently for “precipitously rushing forward through all manners of nettles and briars instead of keeping the path; guessing at the meaning of words instead of looking into the dictionary and (my favorite), “expecting everything to be done in a minute, and the thunder to be as quick as the lightning.” Young Elizabeth was a brash and impatient little thing. She writes to Browning though, that she feels she still struggles with the force of testa lunga as a writer. She knows the sharp contrast between “the thing desired and the thing attained.” In my understanding, she’s referencing the struggle a writer faces in expressing what she feels and need to share (“the quick’ning of the breath and beating of the heat in pursuit…”) and how this doesn’t always end up on the page.

In linking back to this idea of perjury, I’m wondering if Barrett’s struggle at all relates to the idea of how a writer sometimes feigns, covers, and embellishes, and affects people through writing. This feigning can especially mark letter-writing; in shaping one’s words knowing that there is a specific person in mind, we aren’t always as truthful or complete as we maybe we ought to be. Is Barrett’s frustration with the gap between what she feels (“the thing desired”) and what she writes (“the thing attained”) reflective of the perjured ‘I’ or ‘eye’ of the writer? Is she recognizing this? Her struggle with testa lunga suggests that she doesn’t always form her thoughts completely or accurately in her writing; she moves too quickly (eschewing the dictionary) and is too impatient to maybe write as artfully as she wants. But after grappling with this 1845 letter and Barrett’s recognition of the gap that can sometimes exist between what’s composed in an artist’s head and what gets placed on paper, I am considering if her frustration at all can be linked to feelings she has of being untruthful or of feigning in her writing, of describing with a perjured eye, of twisting her words to better impress or please her readers. Maybe, on some level, she’s aware of this danger in her letters to Browning, too.


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