Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave‘ is a sonnet inspired by one of the most famous sculptures of the nineteenth century. The poet uses the sculpture as a means of expressing her views on the complicated relationship between beauty and suffering.
Hiram Powers' Greek Slave Elizabeth Barrett BrowningThey say Ideal beauty cannot enterThe house of anguish. On the threshold standsAn alien Image with enshackled hands,Called the Greek Slave! as if the artist meant her(That passionless perfection which he lent her,Shadowed not darkened where the sill expands)To so confront man’s crimes in different landsWith man’s ideal sense. Pierce to the centre,Art’s fiery finger! and break up ere longThe serfdom of this world. Appeal, fair stone,From God’s pure heights of beauty against man’s wrong!Catch up in thy divine face, not aloneEast griefs but west, and strike and shame the strong,By thunders of white silence, overthrown.
Explore Hiram Powers' Greek Slave
‘Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave‘ conflates pain and beauty in order to make the reader share in the poet’s discomfort at having seen the sculpture.
The poem begins by outlining the innate contradiction between beauty and suffering, however, the sculpture blurs this distinction as it embodies both qualities. Elizabeth Barrett Browning continues by using the sculpture as a lens to examine the beliefs and prejudices of those that admire it, calling their own sense of morality into question. The poem culminates with a thinly veiled accusation at those who profited from and ignored the consequences of slavery across the world.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born in Country Durham in 1806 and began writing poetry aged just eleven. Despite suffering from poor health for her entire life, Barrett Browning became one of the most respected poets of her age. Fearful of her father’s reaction to her choice of partner, she moved to Florence after marrying the poet Robert Browning and it was there that she died in 1861.
‘Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave‘ was written in response to seeing the aforementioned sculpture at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The statue quickly became one of the most famous pieces of art in the world. Barrett Browning had been a vocal advocate for the abolition of slavery and was very moved by the sculpture.
They say Ideal beauty cannot enter
The house of anguish. On the threshold stands
An alien Image with enshackled hands,
Called the Greek Slave! as if the artist meant her
(That passionless perfection which he lent her,
Shadowed not darkened where the sill expands)
To so confront man’s crimes in different lands
The poem begins by expressing the conventional wisdom that beauty cannot coexist with pain and suffering. By personifying beauty, the poet implies that beauty is not fixed and that it has its own agenda, mirroring the manner in which tastes and preferences can change. The placement of the caesura in line two serves to disrupt the poem’s rhythm, possibly implying that the certainty of the aforementioned wisdom is under threat because of the sculpture.
The word “threshold” is significant as it informs the reader that the sculpture occupies a liminal space between beauty and suffering which had previously been considered juxtaposed. This implies the statue possesses an uncanny and unsettling quality. Likewise, the use of the hyperbolic adjective “alien” emphasizes the otherness of the artwork and shows how uncomfortable the poet felt when she realized she found it beautiful.
The use of plosive alliteration in line five imbues the line with aggression and bitterness to highlight the depth of feeling, both negative and positive, that the sculpture was able to inspire. Similarly, the oxymoronic “passionless perfection” reminds the reader that the statue spans the previously thought insurmountable space between beauty and pain. Finally, the mention of “man’s crimes” creates an accusatory tone that reaffirms the sculpture’s connection to the real-life act of enslavement, which the poet had long campaigned against.
With man’s ideal sense. Pierce to the centre,
Art’s fiery finger! and break up ere long
The serfdom of this world. Appeal, fair stone,
From God’s pure heights of beauty against man’s wrong!
Catch up in thy divine face, not alone
East griefs but west, and strike and shame the strong,
By thunders of white silence, overthrown.
The poet again uses personification, this time when describing “art’s fiery finger” in order to showcase the power artists possess to penetrate the consciousness of those who encounter their work. The adjective “fiery” also emphasizes art’s capacity for destruction as well as creation and, because fingers are used to point, the description implies that art can pass judgment on those who deserve to have their reputations and beliefs burned away.
The use of hyperbole in lines nine and ten appeals to humanity as a common group who suffer as a result of slavery, whether they are the perpetrators of it or the persecuted. Barrett Browning also juxtaposes the wishes of God against the mistakes made by humanity in order to reinforce the uncanny presence of the sculpture, as though it were both human and divine.
By referring to both east and west, the poet attempts to diminish the distinctions between them and unite them in opposition to the horrors of slavery. Likewise, the use of sibilance in line eleven creates a sinister tone to suggest those who fail to oppose slavery will face some kind of punishment. Finally, the iconic reference to “white silence” reminds the reader that the Greek slave, who was made of white marble, has no voice of her own but also shames the predominately white guests who attended the exhibition for their silence in the face of human atrocity.
The poem follows the form of a Petrarchan Sonnet which ensures its rhyme scheme is relentlessly repetitive. This could have been intended to create a level of emphasis to reflect the poet’s urgency. Furthermore, Barrett Browning uses caesura throughout the poem to disrupt the rhythm which has the effect of unsettling the reader and thereby encouraging them to take a more active and critical approach to the poem and, perhaps, the world around them.
The Great Exhibition was an event organized by Prince Albert to showcase the cultural and industrial achievements of the age. Sometimes called the Crystal Palace because of the vast structure in which it was housed, the exhibition took place from May to October 1851 in Hyde Park and was attended by some of the most famous people in the world at the time.
There are several versions of the sculpture in galleries around the world. However, the original statue that inspired the poem is now housed in Raby Castle in County Durham. This also happens to be the same county where Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is regarded as one of England’s finest nineteenth-century poets and her works How do I Love Thee? and Aurora Leigh are some of the most recognizable poems in the English language. She is also widely credited as an inspiration to and influence on the poets Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson.
Hiram Powers claimed the work was intended to show a young Greek woman who had been enslaved by the Turkish during the Greek revolution. It was not intended to be a comment upon the transatlantic slave trade and Powers was not an abolitionist.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave‘ might want to explore more Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems. For example:
- ‘Change Upon Change‘ – A poem that explores lost love through the changing of the seasons.
- ‘The Cry of the Children‘ – Another poem that shows the poet’s sympathy for the suffering people in the world.
Some other poems which might be of interest include:
- ‘The Slave Auction‘ by Frances Harper – A vivid and painful account of witnessing slaves being sold at auction.
- ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers‘ by Emily Dickinson – A work of hope and possibility by a poet who was hugely influenced by Barrett Browning.