Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), English poet wrote Sonnets From The Portuguese (1850);
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 candlelight.
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.—number Forty-Three
Empathetic due to her own lifelong physical sufferings but evocative of profound intellectual thought, Browning’s poems are considered among the greatest contributions to English poetry for the nineteenth century. Through her pen, she was passionately outspoken on issues of social injustice like slavery, child labor, and oppression of women, and later in life expressed her political opinions of the struggle in Italy with Austria. She had a lasting influence on future American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and English author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) who praised her works, which are still widely read in the twenty-first century.
Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett was born on 6 March 1806 at Coxhoe Hall, County Durham, England, the daughter of Mary Graham Clarke (d.1828) and Edward Moulton Barrett (d.1857), who amassed great wealth from his Jamaican sugar plantations. Three years after Elizabeth was born, he bought the 500 acre estate `Hope End’ in Hertfordshire.
Young Elizabeth benefited from a privileged life in the country with her eleven younger siblings. Although frail at times, she still enjoyed physical pursuits like riding her pony and attending social gatherings with family and friends. Similar to her future husband Robert Browning, she was a voracious reader and early on became a keen student under her tutors, studying languages including Greek, the Bible in Hebrew, and classical literature, philosophy, and history. While her father was overly protective and actually forbade her to marry, he did encourage her to write, and in 1820 had fifty copies of her narrative poem “The Battle of Marathon” printed. Her autocratic father’s concern increased when Elizabeth was stricken with illness around the age of fifteen. A course of opium was prescribed and for the rest of her life she would need it for various ailments.
In 1825 Browning’s second published poem “The Rose and Zephyr” appeared in the Literary Gazette. She was continuing her studies, kept a journal, and was working on other poems and translations, published anonymously as was common for a woman at the time, but they went mostly unnoticed. Browning supported the abolition of slavery but soon her father’s fortunes fell and he had to sell `Hope End’. The family moved to London and settled at 50 Wimpole Street in 1837. Around this time, at the age of thirty-one, Browning suffered a serious lung ailment and until she married mostly lived a life in seclusion as an invalid, her sickroom filled with books and pictures.
Browning had grown to be an attractive young woman with large eyes, dark curly hair, a diminutive figure with an easy smile, and charming to all who met her. Her ill health did not stop her from writing however and 1838 proved a successful year for her with The Seraphim and Other Poems including “Cowper’s Grave” and “The Cry of the Children”, the first of her works to be published under her own name. It gained critical acclaim and Browning started correspondences with many literary figures of the day including Thomas Carlyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Wordsworth.
Financially secure due to an inheritance from an uncle, in 1840 Browning traveled to the fashionable seaside resort of Torquay in southern England to take a rest cure to improve her health. While there her beloved brother `Bro’ who had accompanied her drowned in the Bay. Her grief and guilt is expressed in “De Profundis”;
The heart which, like a staff, was one
For mine to lean and rest upon,
The strongest on the longest day
With steadfast love, is caught away,
And yet my days go on, go on.
And cold before my summer's done,
And deaf in Nature's general tune,
And fallen too low for special fear,
And here, with hope no longer here,
While the tears drop, my days go on.
Back in London, Browning’s Poems (1844) including “The Drama of Exile” and “The Vision of Poets” was published in England and America. It too was highly praised and came under the notice of poet Robert Browning, who, six years younger than she, wrote her a letter full of compliments on 10 January, 1845. Thus began their famous correspondence, and he soon visited her at Wimpole Street. A year later they secretly married at Marleybone Parish church in London, and settled at their `Casa Guidi’ in Florence, Italy, in 1846.
The Browning’s were a devoted, happy couple and Elizabeth’s physical strength and health improved greatly so that they could travel throughout Italy and Europe. Her pet Spaniel `Flush’ was a constant companion and her nurse and confidante Elizabeth Wilson tended to her every need, as did her husband. They encouraged each other in daily activities as well as their writing, seemingly mindful of each other’s struggles to compose, offering critique or opinions. They had many visitors to their luxurious home with its elegant terraces, including English novelist and art critic John Ruskin and Anthony Trollope.
Titled after her husband’s pet name for her, `the Portuguese’, Sonnets From The Portuguese (1850) is Browning’s collection of forty-four Petrarchan love sonnets, written during her courtship with Robert (1845 and 1846).
In 1849 Robert Wiedeman “Pen” Barrett Browning was born. A year later, when William Wordsworth died, Browning was a candidate for next Poet Laureate, but Lord Alfred Tennyson was chosen. Casa Guidi Windows (1851) contains reflections on Browning’s adopted second home and Italy’s struggle for independence. In 1857, the same year Browning’s father died, who had never forgiven her for marrying, “a novel in verse” the controversial Aurora Leigh (1857) was published, which celebrates in part female independence from domineering men;
If I married him,
I would not dare to call my soul my own,
Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought
And every heart-beat down there in the bill,–
Not one found honestly deductible
From any use that pleased him!
—Bk. II, l. 785-790
That he, in his developed manhood, stood
A little sunburnt by the glare of life;
While I . . it seemed no sun had shone on me.
—Bk. IV, l. 1139-1141
Browning had previously shown an interest in Italian politics but her Poems Before Congress (1860) was not well-received. In a letter dated 13 April, 1860 to friend and critic Mr. Chorley she writes “I never wrote to please any of you, not even to please my own husband.” She defends her work as from the heart, a duty to tell the truth for she further states “Every genuine artist in the world (whatever his degree) goes to heaven for speaking the truth.”
Just over a year later, on 29 June, 1861, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in her husband’s arms. She is buried in an elaborate Cararra marble tomb designed by Lord Leighton in the English Cemetery in Piazzale Donatello, Florence, Italy. Her husband survived her by twenty-eight years.
Last Poems was published in 1862. Her son Robert “Pen” Browning compiled and had published The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846. In 1934, a movie called “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” was made starring Norma Shearer as Elizabeth, Charles Laughton as Edward Moulton Barrett, and Fredric March as Robert Browning.
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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