Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: A Romantic Correspondence
By Nava Atlas | On May 17, 2023 | Updated July 16, 2023 | Comments (0)
In 1844, Elizabeth Barrett’s second major collection of poems (A Drama of Exile) was published and warmly received. The work included lines that praised fellow poet Robert Browning.
Presented here are the two letters that started the correspondence and ignited the romantic literary love story of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett (who soon became Elizabeth Barrett Browning).
After reading the poems, Robert wrote a letter of thanks to Elizabeth on January 10, 1845, with the tantalizing line, “I love your verses with all my heart … and I love you, too.”
Their correspondence ensued until they met for the first time in the summer of 1845. Over the next several months, they became ever closer. Elizabeth remarked that she and Robert were “growing to be the truest of friends.”
Their courtship went on for twenty months, during which time they exchanged five hundred seventy-five letters, many of which are collected in The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, 1845 – 1846, and published much later (1900) by Smith, Elder & Co. in London.
A secret wedding and escape to Italy
On September 12, 1846, Elizabeth and Robert were secretly married at Marylebone Church (her father didn’t approve). Not long after, the couple moved to Pisa, Italy to begin their life together.
Eventually learning of Elizabeth’s marriage, her father disowned her, refusing to see her or open letters she sent to him. Fortunately, after some time had passed, most of Elizabeth’s family accepted her marriage to Robert.
The two were inspired by their surroundings in Italy, and now, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she wrote a significant amount of poetry while living there.
Her most famous work, Sonnets from the Portuguese, was a collection of love poems that she wrote in the first few years of her marriage to Robert. The sonnet that begins with her most famous line, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” is part of this collection.
To make these letters more readable, especially on devices, long paragraphs have been broken up, but otherwise, they remain intact. The volume in its entirety, if you’d like to read these very literary love letters, is found at The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, 1845 – 1846.
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More about this romantic pair:
The Literary Love Story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning
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Robert Browning’s First Letter to Elizabeth Barrett
From: Robert Browning
New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey
January 10, 1845
I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett — and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write,—whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius, and there a graceful and natural end of the thing.
Since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me, for in the first flush of delight I thought I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration — perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of hereafter!
— But nothing comes of it all — so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew —
Oh, how different that is from lying to be dried and pressed flat, and prized highly, and put in a book with a proper account at top and bottom, and shut up and put away … and the book called a ‘Flora,’ besides!
After all, I need not give up the thought of doing that, too, in time; because even now, talking with whoever is worthy, I can give a reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought; but in this addressing myself to you—your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether.
I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart — and I love you too. Do you know I was once not very far from seeing — really seeing you?
Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning ‘Would you like to see Miss Barrett?’ then he went to announce me — then he returned … you were too unwell, and now it is years ago, and I feel as at some untoward passage in my travels, as if I had been close, so close, to some world’s-wonder in chapel or crypt, only a screen to push and I might have entered, but there was some slight, so it now seems, slight and just sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be?
Well, these Poems were to be, and this true thankful joy and pride with which I feel myself,
Yours ever faithfully,
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Elizabeth Barrett’s first response to Robert Browning
From: Miss Barrett
50 Wimpole Street
January 11, 1845
I thank you, dear Mr. Browning, from the bottom of my heart. You meant to give me pleasure by your letter—and even if the object had not been answered, I ought still to thank you. But it is thoroughly answered.
Such a letter from such a hand! Sympathy is dear—very dear to me: but the sympathy of a poet, and of such a poet, is the quintessence of sympathy to me! Will you take back my gratitude for it?—agreeing, too, that of all the commerce done in the world, from Tyre to Carthage, the exchange of sympathy for gratitude is the most princely thing!
For the rest you draw me on with your kindness. It is difficult to get rid of people when you once have given them too much pleasure—that is a fact, and we will not stop for the moral of it.
What I was going to say—after a little natural hesitation—is, that if ever you emerge without inconvenient effort from your ‘passive state,’ and will tell me of such faults as rise to the surface and strike you as important in my poems, (for of course, I do not think of troubling you with criticism in detail) you will confer a lasting obligation on me, and one which I shall value so much, that I covet it at a distance.
I do not pretend to any extraordinary meekness under criticism and it is possible enough that I might not be altogether obedient to yours. But with my high respect for your power in your Art and for your experience as an artist, it would be quite impossible for me to hear a general observation of yours on what appear to you my master-faults, without being the better for it hereafter in some way.
I ask for only a sentence or two of general observation — and I do not ask even for that, so as to tease you — but in the humble, low voice, which is so excellent a thing in women—particularly when they go a-begging!
The most frequent general criticism I receive, is, I think, upon the style — ‘if I would but change my style’! But that is an objection (isn’t it?) to the writer bodily? Buffon says, and every sincere writer must feel, that ‘Le style c’est l’homme’; a fact, however, scarcely calculated to lessen the objection with certain critics.
Is it indeed true that I was so near to the pleasure and honour of making your acquaintance? and can it be true that you look back upon the lost opportunity with any regret? But — you know — if you had entered the ‘crypt,’ you might have caught cold, or been tired to death, and wished yourself ‘a thousand miles off;’ which would have been worse than travelling them.
It is not my interest, however, to put such thoughts in your head about its being ‘all for the best’; and I would rather hope (as I do) that what I lost by one chance I may recover by some future one. Winters shut me up as they do dormouse’s eyes; in the spring, we shall see: and I am so much better that I seem turning round to the outward world again.
And in the meantime I have learnt to know your voice, not merely from the poetry but from the kindness in it. Mr. Kenyon often speaks of you—dear Mr. Kenyon!—who most unspeakably, or only speakably with tears in my eyes — has been my friend and helper, and my book’s friend and helper! critic and sympathiser, true friend of all hours!
You know him well enough, I think, to understand that I must be grateful to him.
I am writing too much,—and notwithstanding that I am writing too much, I will write of one thing more.
I will say that I am your debtor, not only for this cordial letter and for all the pleasure which came with it, but in other ways, and those the highest: and I will say that while I live to follow this divine art of poetry, in proportion to my love for it and my devotion to it, I must be a devout admirer and student of your works. This is in my heart to say to you—and I say it.
And, for the rest, I am proud to remain
Your obliged and faithful
Elizabeth B. Barrett