Human concerns – Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

See on this site – English poet, the wife of Robert Browning, the most respected and successful woman poet of the Victorian period. Elizabeth Browning was considered seriously for the laureateship that eventually was awarded to Tennyson in 1850. Her greatest work, SONNETS FROM THE PORTUGUESE (1850), is a sequence of love sonnets addresses to her husband. Browning’s vivid intelligence and ethereal physical appearance made a lifelong impression to Ruskin, Carlyle, Thackeray, Rossetti, Hawthorne, and many others.

“What do we give to out beloved?
A little faith all undisproved
A little dust to overweep,
And bitter memories to make
The whole earth blasted for our sake.
He giveth His beloved, sleep.”
(from ‘The Sleep’)

Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett was born at Coxhoe Hall, near Durham. Her father was Edward Moulton-Barrett, whose wealth was derived from sugar plantations in the British colony of Jamaica. Mary Graham-Clarke, her mother, came from a family with similar commercial interests.

Elizabeth grew up in the west of England and was largely educated at home by a tutor, quickly learning French, Latin and Greek. Both parents supported her early writing and many of her birthday odes to her parents and siblings still survive. At the age of 14, she wrote her first collection of verse, THE BATTLE OF MARATHON. It was followed by AN ESSAY ON MIND (1826), privately printed at her father’s expense. Her translation of PROMETHEUS BOUND (1833) with other poems appeared anonymously. Browning’s first work to gain critical attention was THE SERAPHIM, AND OTHER POEMS (1838).

In the early 1820s, she started to suffer from a mysterious illness, as if there were a cord tied around her stomach “which seems to break”, as she said. The doctors found nothing wrong with her gynecologically, but she was long an invalid, using morphine for the pains for the rest of her life. At that time, laudanum or morphine was commonly prescribed for many illnesses. Her drug habit also helped her to cope with family problems. However, once she confessed: “Opium – opium – night after night! – and some evenings even opium won’t do”. In 1832 the Barrett family moved to Sidmouth and in 1835 to London, where she began to contribute several periodicals. Her family was still wealthy, but after a lawsuit the property and slaves in Jamaica from Edward Barrett’s grandfather did not go directly in the hand of Edward and his brother. The court decision favored their cousins, the Goodin Barretts. In 1838, seriously ill as a result of a broken blood-vessel, Elizabeth was sent to Torquay. After the death of her brother, who drowned in Torqauy, she developed almost morbid fear of meeting anyone, and devoted herself entirely to literature. She did not publish her picture in her books. Once she described herself to a painter: “I am ‘little & black’ like Sappho, en attendant the immortality – five feet one high… eyes of various colors as the sun shines… & set down by myself (according to my ‘private view’ in the glass) as dark-green-brown – grounded with brown, & green otherwise; what is called ‘invisible green’ in invisible garden fences… Not much nose of any kind; certes no superfluity of nose; but to make up for it, a mouth suitable to larger personality – oh, and a very very little voice.”

When her POEMS (1844) appeared, it gained a huge popularity and was praised among others by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe. Elizabeth Browning’s name was mentioned six years later in speculations about the successor of Wordsworth as the poet laureate.

“Yes,” I answered you last night;
“No,” this morning, sir, I say:
Colors seen by candlelight
Will not look the same by day.
(from ‘The Lady’s “Yes”‘, 1844)

At the age of 39 she started a correspondence with the six year younger poet Robert Browning, who knew well her work. Their courtship was kept a close secret from her father, who had forbidden all 12 of his sons and daughters to marry. Next year she ran away from her home. In September 1846 she married Robert Browning in a church near Wimpole Street. The couple settled a week later in Florence. Casa Guide became the base of their life, although the Brownings also visited Rome, Siena, Bagni di Lucca, Paris, and London. Their only child, Robert Wiedemann (known as Penini), was born in 1849.

Elizabeth Browning became supporter of Italian independence movement, which she advocated in CASA GUIDI WINDOWS (1851). She also opposed slavery in her books THE RUNAWAY SLAVE AT PILGRIM’S POINT (1849) and in the political POEMS BEFORE CONGRESS (1860). Browning’s family had treated their slaves well. Her magnum opus, AURORA LEIGHT (1857), was a novel in blank verse about a woman writer, her childhood and pursuit of a literary career. It also dealt such themes as the poet’s mission, social responsibilities, and the position of women. LAST POEMS (1862), issued posthumously, contained some of her best-known lyrics.

In her late years, Elisabeth Browning developed an interest in spiritualism. She died, romantically, in her husband’s arms on June 29, 1861 in Florence. After her death the writer Edward FitzGerald expressed no sorrow in his famous letter: ”Mrs. Browning’s Death is rather a relief to me, I must say: no more Aurora Leighs, thank God! A woman of real genius, I know; but what is the upshot of it all? She and her Sex had better mind the Kitchen and their Children: and perhaps the Poor: except in such things as little Novels, they only devote themselves to what Men do much better, leaving that which Men do worse or not at all.” Among Browning’s best known lyrics is Sonnets from the Portuguese – the ‘Portugese’ being her husband’s petname for dark-haired Elizabeth, but it could refer to the series of sonnets of the 16th-century Portuguese poet Luiz de Camões. It first appeared in a collected edition in 1850. The work includes the sonnet which begins with the well-known line, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”.

Nay, if there’s room for poets in this world
A little overgrown (I think there is),
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s.

(Read more here).

Comments are closed.