06/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Woman Who Broke Poetry's Glass Ceiling

Hillary Clinton's eloquent endorsement of Barack Obama last Saturday included some reflection on what her campaign, which had achieved so much success, meant for women:

"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it. And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time."

It surely is something to celebrate, and I think it's a good time to remember how women had to fight for respect as poets when the field was thoroughly dominated by men.

Reading the Norton Anthology from Chaucer onward, you have to flip through four and a half centuries before you come to the first woman. This absence speaks to the sexism that pervaded British culture for so long. A woman was rarely given access to the necessary education to write poetry, and even if she was and had talent, she had to fight to be taken seriously by the men who served as gatekeepers for the art. Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own brought to life the challenges that Shakespeare's "extraordinarily gifted" sister would have faced if she has existed:

"She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers....

The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer's night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother's, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face...She could get no training in her craft."

The first woman to appear in my edition of the Norton is Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Barrett Browning's family allowed her to sit in on her brother's tutoring sessions, wherein she steeped herself in Latin, Greek, and classic literature and took to poetry, garnering some admiration for her poems. One of her admirers was Robert Browning-- a well-known poet who would become her husband and, in many ways, her muse.

Barrett Browning is, in fact, best known for a sequence of poems that plays out her love for Robert, which she entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese. You will recognize the first line of the 43rd sonnet below. The rest of the poem, much less recognized, is gorgeous.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of everyday's

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints!---I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life!---and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

Her passion is palpable. As Woolf wrote, "who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?"

Perhaps Barrett Browning's most important work is the long poem Aurora Leigh. It's the story of a woman struggling to be a poet in a man's world, and it's at least partly autobiographical, shedding light on the challenges that Barrett Browning herself faced. Here's an exchange between her title character and a man trying to win her hand in marriage. He is patronizing, to put it mildly., Aurora, with the large live brow

And steady eyelids, cannot condescend

To play at art, as children play at swords...

...You never can be satisfied with praise

Which men give women when they judge a book

Not as mere work, but as mere woman's work,

Expressing the comparative respect

Which means the absolute scorn. 'Oh, excellent!

'What grace! what facile turns! what fluent sweeps!

'What delicate discernment . . almost thought!

'The book does honour to the sex, we hold.

'Among our female authors we make room

'For this fair writer, and congratulate

'The country that produces in these times

'Such women, competent to ... spell.''

Her character's response is brilliant and dignified:

Perhaps I am not worthy, as you say,

Of work like this! . . perhaps a woman's soul

Aspires, and not creates! yet we aspire,

And yet I'll try out your perhapses, sir;

And if I fail . . why, burn me up my straw

Like other false works-I'll not ask for grace,


Who love my art, would never wish it lower

To suit my stature. I may love my art,

You'll grant that even a woman may love art,

Seeing that to waste true love on anything,

Is womanly, past question.'

It's hard to imagine, reading that, how anyone could question Barrett Browning's wit and intelligence. And it's easy to see how in her lifetime she became one of England's most famous poets.

After Barrett Browning, women poets still faced a long struggle for respect. And it has taken the efforts of many, including poets like Eavan Boland and Adrienne Rich today, to level the playing field (which still has some chauvinistic fools). Barrett Browning, though, was one of the first to break the ceiling and should be remembered for it. It has been said she had a smile like a sunbeam, and thanks to her, as Clinton said last Saturday, the light started shining through.

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