Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806 – June 29, 1861), the immensely accomplished British poet, was born in County Durham, England. She grew up in an atmosphere of privilege, and was the eldest daughter of Edward Moulton. He took the name Barrett when he inherited vast businesses, including a West Indies plantations, along with mills, and ships. Edward Barrett was a slave holder.
The eldest of twelve children, Elizabeth was schooled at the family home in Herefordshire, England. She showed much early aptitude for her future calling — she began reading novels at age six, and her first significant poem was written at about age seven.
By age eleven, Elizabeth had written a four-volume poem, The Battle of Marathon (1820), which was privately published by her father.
A privileged youth; mysterious illnesses
Growing up with a strict father and a mother described as meek, Elizabeth had, at least, the privilege of being able to study that classics and correspond with prominent scholars. Her translations of Greek and Byzantine verse were published.
At age fifteen, she contracted a mysterious illness, or possibly suffered an accident, that would prove to be her lifelong cross to bear. This ailment, impossible to diagnose during that era, left her frail and in intense pain.
It has been suggested by her biographers that laudanum, a strong opiate medication she took, might have augmented her already fiercely vivid imagination in service of her evocative poetry.
Whatever the diagnosis, the condition made her an invalid for a number of years, and she never quite recovered. There was more sorrow to come. She nearly died of a broken blood vessel in 1838 and was sent to the seaside resort of Torquay to recover. When her brother Edward came to visit her in 1840, he drowned there. That sent Elizabeth back to her family home in London, beset with grief.
An immediate success and an intense romance
In the 1930s, Elizabeth was introduced to British literary society by her cousin, John Kenyan. Her individual poems were becoming known and respected in these circles.
Her first collection, Poems (1844) was an immediate success in Europe and the U.S. and made her famous. A Drama of Exile: and Other Poems (1845) cemented her reputation.
It was that same year that the poet Robert Browning wrote to tell her how much he admired her work. A mutual acquaintance arranged for the two to meet, and so began one of the most intensely romantic and lasting love affairs in literary history.
Their courtship and marriage were carried out in secret, as she feared that her father would not approve. And she was right — he disinherited his daughter and refused to receive his son-in-law upon learning of their nuptials. In fact, the controlling Browning had forbidden any of his children to marry. Elizabeth and Robert fled to Pisa, Italy, and she never reconciled with her family.
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Settling in Italy
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was far more known than her husband in their time. She had little need of companionship other than Robert, and her beloved dog, Flush. Still, from the time the couple settled in Florence in 1847, they enjoyed the company of a social circle that included some of the leading thinkers and writers in the English language: Carlyle, Thackeray, Hawthorne, Ruskin, Tennyson, and others.
Elizabeth contracted a lung condition similar to consumption (tuberculosis), and the sunny climate helped her health improved for some time. Her output of poetry was impressive, and her reputation grew, along with her husband’s.
Their only son was born in 1849. Her interests and curiosity ranged over a number of subjects, including children’s literature, Italian politics, and spiritualism.
How do I love thee?
In 1850, her collection, poems, was published in a new and expanded edition. It contained what is now considered one of her masterpieces, Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of forty-four love poems she wrote in secret to her husband. The title alludes to one of his pet names for her, when he called her ‘my Portuguese.’ One of the most immortal sonnets is this:
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 every day’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.
A growing reputation & lasting legacy
In 1856, Aurora Leigh, a long narrative novel in verse, was published. It would become one of her best known works, and a true magnum opus with 11,000 lines. It’s the story of a writer, somewhat like herself, set in a lush landscape and laced with Elizabeth’s wry observations on the position of women in her time and place.
In Poems Before Congress (1860) Elizabeth included poems of social protest and humanitarian causes, including abolition.
She enjoyed much popular and critical success in her life, which continued for some time after her death in 1861, at age 55. After her death, her husband returned to England, and it was only then that his reputation began to rise.
Conversely, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s popularity declined over much of the twentieth century, until interest in it was revived by new biographies and scholarly editions of her works.
In 1896, the Barrett Browning Institute in honor of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning was opened in Ledbury, Herefordshire, and in 1938, it became a public library
More about Elizabeth Barrett Browning on this site
- Aurora Leigh
- Sonnets from the Portuguese: A Celebration of Love
- The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems
Biographies about Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Margaret Forster
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist by Helen M. Cooper
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry by Dorothy Mermin
- The Poetry Foundation: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- The Browning Society
- Reader discussion of E.B.B.’s works on Goodreads
Read and listen online
- Tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – Piazzale Donatello, Florence, Italy
- Armstrong Browning Library and Museum – Baylor University, Waco, TX
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