Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Poetic Genius
By Nava Atlas | On June 7, 2013 | Updated May 17, 2023 | Comments (0)
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 as the eldest daughter of Edward Moulton.
Her father changed the family name to 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.
Laying the foundation for a brilliant career
Sarah K. Bolton describes the beginnings of Elizabeth’s brilliant career in Lives of Girls Who Became Famous (1914):
“More fond of books than of social life, she was laying the necessary foundation for a noble fame. The lives of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Margaret Fuller, emphasize the necessity of almost unlimited knowledge, if woman would reach lasting fame. A great man or woman of letters, without great scholarship, is well-nigh an impossible thing.
Nine years after her first book, Prometheus Bound and Miscellaneous Poems was published in 1835. She was now twenty-six. A translation from the Greek of Aeschylus by a woman caused much comment, but like the first book it received severe criticism.
Several years afterward, when she brought her collected poems before the world, she wrote: ‘One early failure, a translation of the Prometheus of Aeschylus, which, though happily free of the current of publication, may be remembered against me by a few of my personal friends, I have replaced here by an entirely new version, made for them and my conscience, in expiation of a sin of my youth, with the sincerest application of my mature mind.'”
Tragic loss of a brother; many dark years of mourning
Elizabeth nearly died of a broken blood vessel in the lungs in 1838. She was quite ill for a year, and then was sent to the seaside resort of Torquay to recover. This sojourn to a warmer climate did improve her health.
In 1840, Elizabeth was still enjoying the effects of the sunny climate of Toquay, joined by her favorite brother. What happened next broke her spirit. The events are described in Lives of Girls Who Became Famous by Sarah K. Bolton (1914):
“One beautiful summer morning she went on the balcony to watch her brother and two other young men who had gone out for a sail. Having had much experience, and understanding the coast, they allowed the boatman to return to land. Only a few minutes out, and in plain sight, as they were crossing the bar, the boat went down, and the three friends perished. Their bodies even were never recovered …
The sister, who had seen her brother sink before her eyes, was utterly prostrated. She blamed herself for his death, because he came to Torquay for her comfort. All winter long she heard the sound of waves ringing in her ears like the moans of the dying. From this time forward she never mentioned her brother’s name, and later, exacted from Mr. Browning a promise that the subject should never be broached between them.
The following year she was removed to London in an invalid carriage, journeying twenty miles a day. And then for seven years, in a large darkened room, lying much of the time upon her couch, and seeing only a few most intimate friends, the frail woman lived and wrote. Books more than ever became her solace and joy.”
Literary accolades and an intense romance
Elizabeth had been introduced to British literary society by her cousin, John Kenyan in the 1830s. Her individual poems were becoming known and respected in these circles.
From Lives of Girls Who Became Famous:
“When she was twenty-nine, Elizabeth published The Seraphim and Other Poems. The Seraphim was a reverential description of two angels watching the Crucifixion. Though the critics saw much that was strikingly original, they condemned the frequent obscurity of meaning and irregularity of rhyme.
The next year, The Romaunt of the Page and other ballads appeared, and in 1844, when she was thirty-five, a complete edition of her poems, opening with the Drama of Exile.”
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.
The most exquisite literary romance
It was in early 1845 that the poet Robert Browning wrote to tell her how much he admired her work. She responded, and an intense correspondence ensued, igniting their romance. A mutual acquaintance arranged for the two to meet, and so began one of the most 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.
More detail about what is considered an ideal literary romances and marriage from Lives of Girls Who Became Famous:
“Finding that the invalid did not receive strangers, Browning wrote her a letter, intense with his desire to see her. She reluctantly consented to an interview. He flew to her apartment, was admitted by the nurse, in whose presence only could he see the deity at whose shrine he had long worshipped.
… Then and there Robert Browning poured his impassioned soul into hers; though his tale of love seemed only an enthusiast’s dream. Infirmity had hitherto so hedged her about, that she deemed herself forever protected from all assaults of love …
He withdrew from her sight, but not to withdraw the offer of his heart and hand; on the contrary, to repeat it by letter, and in such wise as to convince her how ‘dead in earnest’ he was. Her own heart, touched already when she knew it not, was this time fain to listen, be convinced, and overcome.
As a filial daughter, Elizabeth told her father of the poet’s love, and of the poet’s love in return, and asked a parent’s blessing to crown their happiness.
At first he was incredulous of the strange story; but when the truth flashed on him from the new fire in her eyes, he kindled with rage, and forbade her ever seeing or communicating with her lover again, on the penalty of disinheritance and banishment forever from a father’s love.
This decision was founded on no dislike for Mr. Browning personally, or anything in him or his family; it was simply arbitrary. But the new love was stronger than the old in her — it conquered. Mr. Barrett never forgave his daughter, and died unreconciled, which to her was a great grief.
In 1846, Elizabeth Barrett arose from her sick-bed to marry the man of her choice, who took her at once to Italy, where she spent fifteen happy years. At once, love seemed to infuse new life into the delicate body and renew the saddened heart.
She was thirty-seven. She had wisely waited till she found a person of congenial tastes and kindred pursuits. Had she married earlier, it is possible that the cares of life might have deprived the world of some of her noblest works.
The marriage was an ideal one. Both had a grand purpose in life. Neither individual was merged in the other. George S. Hillard, in his Six Months in Italy, when he visited the Brownings the year after their marriage, says:
“A happier home and a more perfect union than theirs it is not easy to imagine; and this completeness arises not only from the rare qualities which each possesses, but from their perfect adaptation to each other ….”
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The Literary Love Story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning
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Settling in Italy with Robert Browning
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. Italians who knew the Brownings called Elizabeth “The mother of the beautiful child.” Motherhood seemed only to heighten her creativity and genius. Her interests and curiosity ranged over a number of subjects, including children’s literature, Italian politics, and spiritualism, and worked their way into her writings.
Some of her strongest work was produced in this period, including Casa Guidi Windows appeared in 1851, a work that told of the struggle for Italian liberty.
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.
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Full text of Sonnets from the Portuguese
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A growing reputation & 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. Here’s an analysis of Aurora Leigh by a 19th century essayist.
In Poems Before Congress (1860) Elizabeth included poems of social protest and humanitarian causes, including abolition. She was immensely respected in her lifetime for her work, and beloved for her character, which was described by a contemporary:
“Thoughtful in the smallest things for others, she seemed to give little thought to herself. The first to see merit, she was the last to censure faults, and gave the praise that she felt with a generous hand. No one so heartily rejoiced at the success of others, no one was so modest in her own triumphs.
She loved all who offered her affection, and would solace and advise with any. Mrs. Browning belonged to no particular country; the world was inscribed upon the banner under which she fought. Wrong was her enemy; against this she wrestled, in whatever part of the globe it was to be found.”
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. In addition, the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum (Baylor University, Waco, Texas) is dedicated to the study of these two eminent Victorian poets.
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More about Elizabeth Barrett Browning
On this site
- “A Dead Rose”: An Ecocritical Reading
- “To George Sand: A Desire”
- “To Flush, My Dog”
- “The Cry of the Children”
- “Mother and Poet”
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning Quotes
- The Literary Love Story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning
- 10 Shorter Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Poetic Genius
- Aurora Leigh: A 19th-Century Analysis
- The poetry of Elizabeth Browning: A 19th-Century Analysis
- Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: A Romantic Correspondence
Major Works (selected)
- The Battle of Marathon: A Poem (Privately printed; 1820)
- An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826)
- Prometheus Bound, Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus, and Miscellaneous Poems (1833)
- The Seraphim, and Other Poems. London: Saunders and Otley (1838)
- A Drama of Exile, and other Poems (1844)
- Poems (Revision of 1844 edition, adding Sonnets from the Portuguese and others (1850)
- Casa Guidi Windows (1851)
- Poems (3rd edition, 1853)
- Poems (4th edition, 1856)
- Aurora Leigh (1856)
- Poems Before Congress (1860)
- Last Poems (1862)
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Margaret Forster (1988)
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist by Helen M. Cooper (1988)
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry by Dorothy Mermin (1989)
- Poetry Foundation
- The Browning Society
- EBB’s Five Best Poems
- 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
- Barrett Browning Institute – Ledbury, Herefordshire, England