Analysis of Poems by

Elizabeth Barrett Browning


The poems “How Bacchus finds Ariadne Sleeping” and “How Bacchus comforts Ariadne” were written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. They were included in “Last Poems,” published in 1862, one year after her death (poetry connection). She probably chose to write these poems because of her interest in Greek history (Poets). Most other stories of Ariadne focused on her and Theseus, whereas these focused on Bacchus and Ariadne. In my opinion, this focus on Bacchus could be because she sees herself as Ariadne, and her husband, Robert Browning, as her Bacchus.

Most likely these poems were appealing to Elizabeth Barrett Browning because they were of great interest to her. There are some parallels between the stories of Ariadne and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life. For example, Ariadne had left her home to be with her love, Theseus (her love at the time), and most likely King Minos, her father, wouldn’t have agreed with them leaving together. Likewise, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was in love with Robert Browning, who her father opposed, and they moved to Florence, Italy (Poets). And since she had interest in the Greeks, it only makes sense that she would include stories of Ariadne in her poetry books.

The attitudes of Ariadne differ in the myths. Some of the versions (mainly Catullus) had Ariadne infuriated at Theseus for leaving her on the island: “Could no fact bend your cruel mind's plan? Was there no mercy in you at all --vicious!--so your heart might pity me? (Catullus lines 136-139).“ In these two poems by Browning, Ariadne has more sadness than anger. An example of this sadness is: “And while I dreamed of marriage, as I say, and blessed it well, my blessed Theseus left me: And thus the sleep, I loved so, has bereft me (Page 221).” In addition to Ariadne having sadness in the poems by Browning, she has some confusion, especially when she first wakes up: “And gazing wild on that wild throng that stands around, around her, and no Theseus there! Her voice went moaning over sea and shore (Page 219).”

When Browning wrote her versions of the myth, she kept the symbolism that existed in the earlier versions. From other myths of Ariadne, as well as with these, there was the symbol of love causing everything to happen. At first, love may have seemed to lead to unpleasant events, such as Ariadne being left alone on the Island of Naxos by Theseus, but this actually lead to something much greater for Ariadne. It lead to her becoming married to a god, which is seen in the poems by Browning.

The poems, “How Bacchus finds Ariadne Sleeping” and in “How Bacchus comforts Ariadne,” expand on the notion of great things coming out of horrible events. From the second poem, “How Bacchus comforts Ariadne,” the reader is able to see how much better off Ariadne is with Bacchus. For example, Bacchus basically tells her “why have a mortal when you can have a god?” and that neither Gnossus (Knossos) nor Athens could compare to Olympus and what he could offer her.

Another symbol that was kept in these poems was that at this point in time, women didn’t have much power. For example, there wasn’t much that Ariadne could do when Theseus left her. Theseus, in a way, treated Ariadne like an object. When he got tired of her, he went to find someone new. In the poems by Browning Theseus basically got away unpunished for with leaving Ariadne on the island. Although in Catullus, he was punished to some degree for leaving Ariadne on the Island of Naxos. In Catullus, Ariadne calls to the goddesses that “may the same intent that left me behind, alone, defile Theseus himself and his own with death (lines 200-201)." Soon after this, something caused Theseus to forget “all orders which before he had held in constant mind. He did not raise for his sad parent the sweet symbols to show that he called safe at Erechtheus' port (lines 208-211).” Aegeas (Theseus’ father) didn’t know that his son was going to arrive home safely, so he threw himself into the sea, which is named after him (Aegean Sea).

By portraying women as having almost no power, it caused Ariadne to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way out. In Catullus she wonders what she can do now:

“Am I to hope for father's help, when I myself left him

and followed a young man spattered with my brother's gore?

Am I to console myself with my husband's faithful love--

the one who is running away, arching lithe oars in the abyss?”


The only way she would have any chance of leaving was if some man, or in this case, a god, came along. In “How Bacchus finds Ariadne Sleeping” Ariadne doesn’t have much time to think about how to get off of Naxos. Her mind is set on trying to find out “who stole her love to Athens?” Right after this, Bacchus comes to comfort her, and takes her away from the island, not by ship, but in his own way, by marriage.

This relationship between Ariadne and Bacchus is more apparent in the poems by Browning, whereas in the other versions of the myths, the focus was on Ariadne and Theseus. To understand why there was a focus on Bacchus one must be aware of the troubles in Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s life. In her teens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning had contracted a lung ailment, possibly tuberculosis (Answers). Ariadne being left and having no way to alleviate her pain (before Bacchus came), could be like this illness that she suffered for the rest of her life (poets). Like Ariadne, there was nothing she could do. It is only natural then, that she would want to only mention of Theseus and provide great detail of the positive effect of Bacchus rescuing Ariadne, to help ease her own pain. This shows that Robert Browning, her husband, is like Bacchus in that he led her away from her Naxos, and convinced her to go to his Olympus, in this case it would be the sunny skies of Florence, Italy where she would have better health (Poetry Connection).

This focus of importance on Bacchus is seen in the second poem, “How Bacchus comforts Ariadne.” We see Bacchus using the power of speech persuasion to get Ariadne to fall for him and realize that Theseus is nothing. “O, maiden, dost thou mourn for having lost the false Athenian heart? And dost thou still take thought of Theseus, when thou may’st at will have Bacchus for a husband (page 221)?” In poem by Catullus, it is Theseus who uses persuasion, but he doesn’t live up to his claims of a happy marriage. These false claims of marriage from Theseus could be like all of the attempts to help Elizabeth get over her illness, but in the end, it was the company of Robert Browning that enabled her to have better health.

No matter which myth about Ariadne you look at, the theme of love is always at its core. Some myths show false love and false promises, whereas the myths by Browning show true love and promises that are kept. In the poems by Browning, we can see her love of her husband through the love that Bacchus and Ariadne have for each other. From these poems by Browning, it seems as though love has the power to not only control a person’s thoughts, but to control what they write as well.

by: Andrew Moeller

poetry connection:




back to part 2

Ariadne and Theseus Home page