Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806 – June 29, 1861), the immensely accomplished British poet, was born in County Durham, England, and bred in an atmosphere of privilege, Elizabeth came from a family who owned vast businesses, including sugar plantations, mills, and ships.

The eldest of twelve children, she was schooled at home and 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, she wrote a four-volume poem, The Battle of Marathon (1820), which was privately published by her father.

At age fifteen, she contracted a mysterious illness 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 the strong opiate medication given to her might have augmented her already fiercely vivid imagination in service of her evocative poetry.

An immediate success; an intense romance

Her first collection, Poems (1844) was an immediate success in Europe and the U.S. and made her famous. 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 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.

How do I love thee?

Barrett Browning’s most immortal lines are from 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.

A growing reputation & lasting legacy

After Barrett Browning contracted a lung condition similar to consumption (tuberculosis), the couple moved to Italy for the sunny climate. Her health improved for some time, allowing her to her literary output to flourish; her reputation grew, along with her husband’s. Elizabeth Barrett Browning enjoyed much popular and critical success in her life, which continued for some time after her death in 1861, at age 55. Her work’s popularity declined over much of the twentieth century, until interest it was revived by new biographies and scholarly editions of her works.

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