Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (née Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett; 6 March 1806 – 29 June 1861) was an English poet.

She was educated at home. Except for some instruction in Greek and Latin from a tutor who lived with the family for three years to teach her brother Edward, Elizabeth was mostly self-taught. “Books and dreams were what I lived in and domestic life only seemed to buzz gently around, like bees about the grass,” she would say later.

Elizabeth began composing verses at the age of four. By the age of ten, she had read several Shakespearian plays, including Othello and The Tempest, parts of Pope’s Homeric translations, and passages from Paradise Lost. At twelve, she wrote an epic poem consisting of four books of rhyming couplets, The Battle of Marathon, to which she later referred as, “Pope’s Homer done over again, or rather undone.” The poem was privately printed at her father’s expense in 1820.

At fourteen, following, as she later said, “the most ardent desire to understand the learned languages”, she went through the works of Greek and Latin authors, several plays by Racine and Molière, and Dante’s Inferno, all in the original languages, and taught herself Hebrew to read the Old Testament. By 1821, she had also passionately read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and became a supporter of her ideas.

When Elizabeth was fifteen, she became ill. She would suffer from intense head and spinal pain and loss of mobility for all her life. Later, in 1837, she would also develop a lung disease, and some biographers argue that it was possibly tuberculosis. At fifteen, she started to take opiates for the pain, and would become dependent on them for much of her adulthood.

In 1825, she published a poem, The Rose and Zephyr, in the Literary Gazette. At twenty, Elizabeth published anonymously a collection entitled An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826). The book was barely noticed, and a reviewer advised the poet to “come down from the heights to look more closely at nature”.

In 1828, when Elizabeth was twenty-two, her mother died. In 1832, her father suffered serious financial losses, due to the mismanagement of his Jamaican plantations. No longer able to afford his state, he had to sell it at a public auction to pay his creditors, and the family moved to the southern coast of Devonshire, living for three years in rented houses.

In 1833, Elizabeth published, also anonymously, the volume Prometheus Bound, Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus; and Miscellaneous Poems (1833). In 1835, the family moved to London, where she became known in literary circles with the collection The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), the first book Elizabeth published under her own name. Later she would refer to this book as “the first utterance of my own individuality.”

Due to her lung disease and her poor health, she moved to the warmer climate of Torquay, on the south coast of Devonshire, where various members of her family took turns living with her. She remained three years there, and moved back to London after her brother Edward died by drowning while staying at Torquay, in 1840, which left her in a terrible prostrated condition for months. She later claimed that his death “gave a nightmare to my life forever.”

Back in London, Elizabeth remained confined in her room for the following five years, devoting herself to reading fiction and writing essays and poetry. She wrote articles for the Atheneaum, and published the poem The Cry of the Children, in the magazine Blackwoods, in 1842, in response to an official report on the investigation about child employment. The poem condemned child labour and influenced the reform in the legislation. She also contributed to a book of critical essays on literary figures, entitled A New Spirit of the Age (1844), edited by Richard Hengist Horne.

Her room was decorated with engravings of Tennyson, Carlyle, Harriet Martineau, and Wordsworth, as well as the busts of Homer and Chaucer. By that time, she had inherited a small amount from her grandmother and her uncle, which provided her with some financial independence.

Only a few people outside her family circle were allowed to visit her in her room. Among them were the writers Mary Russell Mitford, Anna Jameson, and the poet John Kenyon. She was also accompanied by her faithful spaniel, Flush, the dog Virginia Woolf would later fictionalize in Flush: A Biography (1933).

Elizabeth’s collection Poems (1844) was received with great success, and she was acclaimed as one of England’s great living poets. In his review of the book, American writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote that “her poetic inspiration is the highest – we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself”. Inspired by Lady Geraldine’s Courtship, he borrowed her poem’s metre for The Raven (1845).

In a letter from 1854 to her friend Henry Emmons, Emily Dickinson quotes from the poem A Vision of Poets, from Elizabeth’s 1844 collection: “Then golden morning’s pen flowings shall sway the trees to murmurous bowings, in metric chant of blessed poems.” Emily also kept a framed picture of Elizabeth on her bedroom wall.

The two volumes of Elizabeth’s Poems (1844) made their way to Robert Browning and, upon seeing the tribute paid to him in the poem Lady Geraldine’s Courtship (“Or at times a modern volume, Wordsworth’s solemn-thoughted idyl, / Howitt’s ballad-verse, or Tennyson’s enchanted reverie,— / Or from Browning some “Pomegranate,” which, if cut deep down the middle, / Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity”), he decided to write to her.

I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett. (…) and I love you too”. It was January 1845, and this was the first of more than 500 letters Robert and Elizabeth exchanged in the twenty months of what would become one of the most famous courtships in literature.

Robert’s first letter to Elizabeth

Despite her father’s objections, and despite Elizabeth’s own misgivings about being an invalid six years older than Robert, they married on September 12, 1846. Almost immediately, they left for Italy, in the hope that the warm climate would be better for Elizabeth’s health. The couple settled in Florence, where she would remain until her death. Because of the marriage, her father disinherited her.

After four miscarriages, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, at the age of forty-three, in 1849. She would come to know a wide circle of intellectuals while living in Italy. That same year, she met the American journalist and women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller. In 1852, Elizabeth met the French novelist George Sand, whom she greatly admired. In 1856, she met the American novelist and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, with whom she continued to correspond.

Elizabeth campaigned for the abolition of slavery and published two poems in support of the cause: “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” (1848)  and “A Curse for a Nation A Curse for a Nation” (1854). In 1855, she wrote to critic John Ruskin: “I belong to a family of West Indian slaveholders, and if I believed in curses, I should be afraid”.

In 1850, she published her most famous collection, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), which she had started writing during her courtship with Robert. Some biographers argue that the title of the book is related to the fact that Robert called her “my little Portuguese”, because of her dark-haired complexion. By this time, Elizabeth was so successful that, on Wordsworth’s death, in 1850, she was even considered to be the Poet Laureate, but eventually the Laureateship went to Tennyson.

Elizabeth explored the restrictions of women’s education and marriage in her novel in verse, Aurora Leigh (1856), published to great acclaim. Oscar Wilde and Charles Swinburne praised the book; Elizabeth Gaskell took her epigraph for The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) from Elizabeth’s novel (“Thou hast knowledge, only Thou, / How dreary ’tis for women to sit still / On winter nights by solitary fires / And hear the nations praising them far off”); George Eliot declared in her letters that she had read Aurora Leigh three times, because no other book gave her “a deeper sense of communion with a large as well as a beautiful mind”; Emily Dickinson memorized whole sections of Aurora Leigh; and Rudyard Kipling borrowed Aurora Leigh’s plot for The Light That Failed (1890).

Elizabeth also campaigned against the oppression of the Italian people by the Austrians and expressed sympathy for the struggle for the unification of Italy in Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems Before Congress (1860).

In 1860, the news about her sister’s death led Elizabeth to an intense bout of depression. She gradually became weaker and, after a severe cold, she died in Robert’s arms early in the morning of June 29th 1861. She was fifty-six years old. According to Robert, her last word was: “Beautiful.”

Shortly after Elizabeth’s death, Emily Dickinson wrote three eulogies to her. This is my favourite:

“I think I was enchanted
When first a sombre Girl —
I read that Foreign Lady —
The Dark — felt beautiful —

And whether it was noon at night —
Or only Heaven — at Noon —
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell —

The Bees — became as Butterflies —
The Butterflies — as Swans —
Approached — and spurned the narrow Grass —
And just the meanest Tunes

That Nature murmured to herself
To keep herself in Cheer —
I took for Giants — practising
Titanic Opera —

The Days — to Mighty Metres stept —
The Homeliest — adorned
As if unto a Jubilee
‘Twere suddenly confirmed —

I could not have defined the change —
Conversion of the Mind
Like Sanctifying in the Soul —
Is witnessed — not explained —

‘Twas a Divine Insanity —
The Danger to be sane
Should I again experience —
‘Tis Antidote to turn —

To Tomes of Solid Witchcraft —
Magicians be asleep —
But Magic — hath an element —
Like Deity — to keep —”

In 1930, in an article in the Times Literary Supplement, Virginia Woolf deplored the fact that Barrett Browning’s poetry was no longer being read, and argued that Aurora Leigh‘s heroine, “with her passionate interest in social questions, her conflict as artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom, is the true daughter of her age.”

Books

Poetry

  • The Battle of Marathon (1820)
  • An Essay on Mind and Other Poems (1826)
  • Prometheus Bound. Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus, and Miscellaneous Poems (1833)
  • The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838)
  • Poems (1844. A Drama of Exile, and other Poems, in the United States)
  • Poems (includes the Sonnets from the Portuguese, 1850)
  • Casa Guidi Windows (1851)
  • Poems: Third Edition (1853)
  • Two Poems (“A Plea for the Ragged Schools of London” and “The Twins”, 1854)
  • Poems: Fourth Edition (1856)
  • Aurora Leigh (1856)
  • Poems Before Congress (1860)
  • Napoleon III in Italy, and Other Poems (1860)
  • Last Poems (published posthumously, 1862)
  • The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1826–1833, ed. Richard Herne Shepherd (1877)
  • The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1900)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Hitherto Unpublished Poems and Stories (1914)
  • New Poems by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic G Kenyon (1914)
  • The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with Two Prose Essays, ed. Humphrey Milford (1920)

Nonfiction

  • Queen Annelida and False Arcite / The Complaint of Annelida to False Arcite (1841)
  • A New Spirit of the Age (1844)
  • “The Daughters of Pandarus” from the Odyssey (1846)
  • The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets (1863)
  • Psyche Apocalyptè: A Lyrical Drama (1876)
  • Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Addressed to Richard Hengist Horne, with comments on contemporaries, 2 vols., ed. S.R.T. Mayer (1877)
  • Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 2 vols., ed. Frederic G. Kenyon (1897)
  • Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett 1845–1846, 2 vol., ed Robert W. Barrett Browning (1899)
  • The Poet’s Enchiridion (1914)
  • Letters to Robert Browning and Other Correspondents by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1916)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to Her Sister, 1846–1859, ed. Leonard Huxley (1929)
  • Twenty-Two Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning to Henrietta and Arabella Moulton Barrett (1935)
  • Letters from Elizabeth Barrett to B.R. Haydon, ed. Martha Hale Shackford (1939)
  • Twenty Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett to Hugh Stuart Boyd (1950)
  • New Letters from Mrs. Browning to Isa Blagden (1951)
  • The Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford (1954)
  • Elizabeth Barrett to Miss Mitford, ed. Betty Miller (1954)
  • Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Hugh Stuart Boyd, ed. Barbara P. McCarthy (1955)
  • Letters of the Brownings to George Barrett, ed. Paul Landis with Ronald E. Freeman (1958)
  • Diary by E. B. B.: The Unpublished Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1831-1832 (1969)
  • The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1845-1846, 2 vols., edited by Elvan Kintner (1969)
  • Invisible Friends. The Correspondence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1842-1845
    ed. Williard Bissell Pope (1972)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy,1849–1861, ed. P. Heydon and P. Kelley (1974)
  • The Brownings’ Correspondence, ed. Phillip Kelley, Ronald Hudson, and Scott Lewis (1984)

About her

  • The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Gardner B. Taplin (1957)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Angela Leighton (1986)
  • Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, by Deirdre David (1987)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist, by Helen Cooper (1988)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry, by Dorothy Mermin (1989)
  • Dared and Done: Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, by Julia Markus (1995)
  • Critical Essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by Sandra Donaldson (1999)
  • Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning: A Creative Partnership, by Mary Sanders Pollock (2003)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Rebecca Stott and Simon Avery (2003)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Margaret Forster (2004)

 

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