Toll Slowly: Encountering the Gothic with Elizabeth Barrett Browning

EBB (portrait from Baylor University)
EBB (portrait from Baylor University)

Typically remembered for poems such as the popular “How Do I Love Thee”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not fit the traditional mold of a Gothic writer. While the Gothic period overlapped Barrett Browning’s life and the Victorian era, the majority of her work is “not prevailingly Gothic” (Beers 129). However, she composed several poems in the style of medieval ballads that are often overlooked by scholars, despite being rife with Gothic elements.

“The Romaunt of Margret”, “The Poet’s Vow”, and “The Lay of the Brown Rosary” are three samples of Barrett Browning’s immersion in the Gothic atmosphere. Though these selected ballads—also called romaunts or lays—do contain Gothic factors, they are not as potent as “The Rime of the Duchess May” (1844?). While Barrett Browning admitted that the piece was not a favorite of hers—which she confessed in a letter to Thomas Westwood in 1844—it bears the marks of classic Gothic literature, and also holds numerous parallels to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Through a close reading of “Duchess May”, one can see how Barrett Browning uses classic Gothic components and medieval imagery to weave a new story in which female bravery and devotion can stand alone against a traditional male setting. 

What Makes Gothic, Gothic? 

The Gothic movement is typically attributed to the afore-mentioned Walpole. Of course, the ideas were not solely his, as “gothic” details had been a part of poetry and folk-tales for centuries. But in the mid 1700s, something different happened—England became obsessed with all things medieval. Enraptured by “the romance of ruin” (Bloom 27), artists, musicians, and writers began to invent their own songs and poetry in the style of the past. As pointed out by Professor Clive Bloom, “there was never enough of the medieval to go round” (28). Enter Horace Walpole. He bought a house in 1747, which he christened Strawberry Hill. In keeping with the current mania, he remodeled the place in the style of a Gothic castle. Inspired by his new surroundings, he decided to try his hand at the imitation trend, and produced The Castle of Otranto. Otranto was different than any of the other poems or songs that had attempted to recreate the mood of the Dark Ages. It wasn’t simply set in a crumbling castle. It didn’t just feature a knight in shining armor. It encompassed everything that scholars now term as classic Gothic imagery, and it spawned an entirely new sub-genre. 

As Gothic literature has expanded and changed over the years, there are numerous attributes that can be considered Gothic. However, for the purpose of this paper, we will focus on style and imagery as opposed to the two most common themes of terror and horror, the former of which was explored and defined by Ann Radcliffe in the 1790s. The aspects to be observed within “Duchess May” include setting, mood, the role of the innocent female heroine, and the theme of confinement. Confinement is a common motif in Gothic literature, and “many critics have commented on the sense of claustrophobia found in Gothic fiction. Often this occurs with the entrapment of the heroine in some ancient castle” (“Gothic Literature” 14). 

The Duchess May

The story of the fated Duchess May is set as a poem within a poem—the first several stanzas are in a gloomy graveyard, where a young narrator (possibly Barrett Browning herself) sits reading an “ancient rhyme” (28). The story the narrator conveys to the reader is that of an orphaned girl named May who is betrothed at the age of twelve to marry Lord Leigh, the son of her caretaker, the Earl. But when May becomes a grown woman, she speaks out against the betrothal, expressing her “will, as lady free, not to wed a lord of Leigh, / But Sir Guy of Linteged” (63, 64). Naturally, her request to retract the betrothal is denied. But instead of conceding to the wishes of her affianced and his father, she elopes with Sir Guy to become the “bride of Linteged” (88). This calls to mind the similar situation of Isabella in Otranto, who is at first betrothed to Conrad, and then lusted after by Manfred—she does not wish to marry either, and attempts to escape Manfred’s advances, culminating in a chilling chase scene in hidden passages beneath the castle of Otranto. 

Three months later, the castle of Linteged is under siege and vicious attack from the angry, spurned Lord Leigh and his forces. As Sir Guy is watching the advances from atop the castle wall, he leans upon his sword and it accidentally snaps in two. Sir Guy takes this as an  ill-fated omen, proclaiming, “Sword, thy nobler use is done! tower is lost, and shame begun!” (189). In Otranto, there is a corresponding importance placed upon weaponry and armor—Walpole’s narrative begins with Manfred’s son Conrad being “dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, a hundred times more large that any casque ever made for human being” (Walpole 52). The significance and seriousness of both situations, however unlikely, are consistent with the Gothic setting of each story. Both are set in castles, in the dark ages, with ominous circumstances surrounding each and every character. Armor and the ability to defend oneself were of vital importance in the medieval world, and both Walpole and Barrett Browning utilize these crucial elements of history in events—ranging in supernatural intensity—that signify a major plot point in their respective tales. 

The mood of Duchess May continues to darken, feeding into the Gothic feel. Throughout the entire piece, the second line of each stanza is the same— “Toll slowly.” At first, it is fitting of the graveyard backdrop, but as the poem progresses, the phrase becomes more and more sinister, even though the words never change. In addition, simple elements are exaggerated in the typical Gothic style. For example, May has an odd, nearly mystical, connection with her husband’s noble war horse, and is able to lead him up the stairs of the castle to the very wall where Sir Guy stands—a feat that none of his experienced men could accomplish. There is also a moment where  she falls to the floor weeping, and her tears are unnaturally loud. “…tear after tear you heard fall distinct as any word / Which you might be listening for” (287, 288).  

The poem culminates atop the castle wall. May has joined Sir Guy, who intends to leap off the castle with his horse, falling to his inevitable death. He believes that his suicide will be a glorious deed that brings an end to the siege, avoiding the death of his faithful men, as well as heightening May’s chances of moving forward in life. “She will weep her woman’s tears, she will pray her woman’s prayers,— / Toll slowly. / But her heart is young in pain, and her hopes will spring again / By the suntime of her years” (225-228). May, realizing what he has planned, insists on joining him in death. “By this golden ring ye see on this lifted hand, pardie, / Toll slowly. / If, this hour, on castle-wall, can be room for steed from stall, / Shall be also room for me” (331, 332). 

While her unwavering loyalty and her willingness to be a martyr fit the Gothic model of the innocent female heroine, the actions that follow show Barrett Browning’s own ideas about what a heroine should be. Although May has been described as “a bride of queenly eyes” (49) who “softly whispered in the doors, / May good angels bless our home” (47, 48), she steps out of the typical role the moment that she flatly refuses to obey her husband. Sir Guy pleads with her to go back into the castle, even mounting the horse to put distance between them, but she grips the bridle and is somehow able to swing herself up beside her husband. While Sir Guy’s plan to throw himself from the wall is “ego driven and selfish” (Kendall), May’s decision to join him is propelled by her devotion and love for him. 

As “Horse and rider overfell” (404), crashing to their deaths below, May showcases a level of bravery not common to the archetypal role she is supposed to fill. While both May and Isabella flee their oppressors at the beginning of their stories, May’s decision to die alongside Sir Guy, despite his wishes, is anything but typical. Isabella, as the innocent female heroine, is stereotypically afraid, timid, and virtuous; she runs away because she is scared and wants to protect her body from the wiles of Manfred. May, on the other hand, is defiant, strong-willed, and courageous; she absconds the confines of her caretaker’s home, and when she finds herself trapped once more, she escapes the reality of her situation by making the choice to stay by her husband’s side, even in death. 

duchess may
“The Rime of the Duchess May” drawn by Charlotte Schreiber via the Blackwood Gallery

Barrett Browning’s emphasis on free will, bravery, and female devotion cause Duchess May to break free of the archetypal bonds placed upon women in classic Gothic fiction. Another way in which Barrett Browning twists the common Gothic theme is by altering the thread of confinement. As mentioned above, May escapes confinement twice—once by eloping and once by suicide. Both these choices were hers to make, in keeping with her strong-willed nature in opposition to male dominance. Isabella, on the other hand, seems to be in a continual state of confinement and claustrophobia throughout Otranto. When not fumbling through the dangerous and dark underground passages, she is restricted to the church, and afterward is placed within a cave by Theodore, the man she ends up marrying at the end of the narrative. Her freedom relies on the will of the male characters who surround her. Both women’s stories begin the same way: they are pawns in convenient marriages, controlled completely by men with power; but only May is able to evade panic, confinement, and male supremacy. 

It is not difficult to imagine that Barrett Browning probably identified with characters such as Isabella. An invalid for the majority of her life, Barrett Browning spent a good deal of time indoors, confined to her rooms and dependent upon her father and siblings. If she felt restricted, it is no small wonder that she chose to invent strong female characters who had the fortitude and opportunity to escape their situations, whether by disobedience or suicide.


Obviously inspired by older Gothic works, Barrett Browning drew upon their dark style and imagery, but chose to write in a few distinct differences. Her heroine loves deeply, stands up for herself, and makes bold decisions about her own fate. Interestingly enough, none of Barrett Brownings contemporaries picked up on the variation. Reviews of the work were generally positive, commenting on “harmony of diction” and “the sweetness and power of scenery and language” (Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism 117, 122), but nothing more. 

The Gothic factors in “Duchess May” not only helped drive an interesting, tragic, and somewhat frightening tale, but gave Barrett Browning the opportunity to surprise readers with her twist on classic elements. Today, the piece stands out with her other medieval poems as interesting landmarks alongside the road of Barrett Browning’s poetry. “The Rime of the Duchess May” in particular seems to parallel numerous aspects of her own life, as well as showcase her ideology and frustration with passive heroines. The foreshadowing of her elopement with Robert Browning and her escape to Italy binds the poem even closer to its poet. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was finally able to fly from the confines of sadness, illness, and solitude, and found a happier ending than the one she penned for her own Duchess May.  

Works Cited

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. “The Rime of the Duchess May.” The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 206-214. The Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1998. 

Beers, Henry A. A History of English Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. FreeFictionBooks. 1 February 2013. 


Bloom, Clive. Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010. Print.

“Gothic Literature.” Literary Movements for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Literary Movements. Ed. Ira Mark Milne. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2009. 281-309. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 2 Feb. 2013.

Kendall, Alex. “Female Bravery Versus Male Ego in the Rime of the Duchess May.” Suite 101. 11 June 2011. Accessed 13 February 2013. 


Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 1. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning Reviews.” 115-122. Michigan: Gale Cengage Learning, 1981. 

Ryan, Carol-Ann M. “Charlotte Schreiber (1834-1922).” The Blackwood Gallery. 3 March 2013.


Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. London: Penguin Books, 1986. 


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