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Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) - née Barrett

 

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 A 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. For the death of her brother she blamed herself.

Elizabeth 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.

At the age of 38 she started a correspondence with the six year younger poet Robert Browning, who knew well her work. "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett," he said, and continued, "I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart – and I love you too." Elizabeth had already expressed her admiration for Browning's Bells and Pomegranates (1841-46); at that time many critics considered his verse too obscure and difficult. Confined by ill health to her bedroom, she did not expect to have a lover. After several hundred letters, she finally agreed to meet him in May 1845. "There is nothing to see in me, – nothing to hear in me," she said, "the rest of me is nothing but a root, fit for the ground & the dark."

Following their first meeting, Robert Browning proposed marriage. The 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. Since then they hardly ever spent a night apart. 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. She suffered a miscarriage in March 1847 and a year later another. Her only child, Robert Wiedemann (known as Penini), was born in 1849. At that time she had kicked her morphine and ether habit for a period.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning became supporter of Italian independence movement, which she advocated in Casa Guidi Windows (1851). She also opposed slavery in 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 Leigh (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, Elizabeth Barrett Browning developed an interest in spiritualism; a subject which Robert Browning did not consider intrinsically important. Robert was unnerved by his wife's increasing drug dependency. She ate less and less, giving her food away under the table to their spaniel. All her friends noticed the change in her, the smudged eyes and the extreme slightness of her figure. When Nathaniel Hawthorne met her in the summer of 1858, he found her "a pale, small person, scarcely embodied at all . . . It is wonderful to see how small she is, how pale her cheek, how bright and dark her eyes." Elizabeth Barrett Browning died, romantically, in her husband's arms on June 29, 1861, in Florence. On the day of the funeral, a crowd of Italians, English, and Americans followed her coffin from to the Protestant cemetery in the Piazzale Donatello. Shops were shut as a mark of sorrow.

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 her best known lyrics is Sonnets from the Portuguese – the 'Portuguese' being her husband's petname for the dark-haired Elizabeth; there are no Portuguese originals in the love poems. Its title could also refer to the series of sonnets of the 16th-century Portuguese poet Luiz de Camões, which details the last thoughts of a maiden Catarina, who is dying in the absence of her lover. Browning's suggestion for the title had been "Sonnets translated from the Bosnian". She composed the sonnet sequence during her affair with Robert Browning and shortly before their marriage.

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.

The Sonnets first appeared in a collected edition in 1850. The most famous piece, Sonnet No. 43 begins with the well-known line, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways".

For further reading: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by G. Taplin (1957); Mrs Browning: A Poet's Work and its Setting by A. Hayter (1962); Brownings by Osbert Burdett (1971); Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Virginia L. Radley (1972); Elizabeth Barrett Browing by Irene Willis (1972); Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning: An Annotated Bibliography, 1951-1970 by William S. Peterson (1974); Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry by Dorothy Mermin (1989); Elizabeth Barrett Browning: An Annotated Bibliography of the Commentary and Criticism, 1826-1990 by Sandra Donaldson (1993); Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning by Julia Markus (1995); Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Marjorie Stone (1995); Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Barbara Dennis (1996); Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning by Martin Garrett (2002). Note 1: Rainer Maria Rilke translated into German some of Elisabeth Browning's sonnets.  Note 2: Stonecutter Harriet Hosmer was one of the models for Aurora Leigh.  See also: Emily Dickinson ; Hans Christian Andersen

Selected works:

  • The Battle of Marathon: A Poem, 1820
  • An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, 1826
  • Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound, 1833 (translator)
  • The Seraphim, and Other Poems, 1838
  • The Cry of the Children, 1841
  • A New Spirit of the Age, 1843 (with R.H. Horne)
  • Poems, 1844 (includes 'A Drama of Exile,' 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship')
  • The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point, 1849
  • Poems, 1850 (includes the Sonnets from the Portuguese)
  • Casa Guidi Windows, 1851
  • Poems, 1853 (3th ed.)
  • Poems, 1856 (4th ed.)
  • Aurora Leigh, 1857
  • Poems Before Congress, 1860
  • Last Poems, 1862 (ed. Robert Browning)
  • The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets, 1863
  • The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1826–1833, 1877 (ed. Richard Herne Shepheard)
  • Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1897 (2 vols., ed. Frederic G. Kenyon)
  • Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett 1845–1846, 1899 (2 vols., ed. Robert W. Barrett Browning)
  • The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1900 (6 vols., ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke)
  • The Poetical Works, 1904 (ed. by I. Jack)
  • The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning: 1845-1846, 1926 (2 vols., ed. Robert B. Browning)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to Her Sister, 1846–1859, 1929 (edited by Leonard Huxley)
  • Twenty-Two Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning Addressed to Henrietta and Arabella Moulton-Barrett, 1935
  • The Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford, 1954 (ed. Betty Miller)
  • Elizabeth Barrett to Mr. Boyd: Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Hugh Stuart Boyd, 1955 (introduced and edited by Barbara P. McCarthy)
  • Letters of the Brownings to George Barrett, 1958 (edited by Paul Landis with the assistance of Ronald E. Freeman)
  • Browning to His American Friends: Letters between the Brownings, the Storys and James Russell Lowell, 1841-1890, 1965 (edited with introd. and notes by Gertrude Reese Hudson)
  • Diary by E. B. B.: The Unpublished diary of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1831-1832, 1969 (edited with an introd. and notes by Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson; including psychoanalytical observations by Robert Coles) 
  • Invisible Friends: The Correspondence of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett and Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1842-1845, 1972 (edited by Willard Bissell Pope)
  • The Barretts at Hope End; The Early Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1974 (edited by Elizabeth Berridge)
  • Unpublished Letters of Thomas De Quincey and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1975
  • The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford, 1983 (3 vols., ed. B.R. Meredith and M.R. Sullivan)
  • The Brownings' Correspondence, 1984-2010 (17 vols., in progress, ed. Philip Kelley & Ronald Hudson; a projected 40 volume edition of letters)
  • Women of Letters: Selected Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Mary Russell Mitford, 1987 (edited and introduced by Meredith B. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan)
  • Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: The Courtship Correspondence, 1845-1846: A Selection, 1989 (ed. Daniel Karlin)
  • The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1991
  • Aurora Leigh and Other Poems, 1995 (edited by John Robert Glorney Bolton and Julia Bolton Holloway)
  • The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Her Sister Arabella, 2002 (2 vols., edited by Scott Lewis)
  • Florentine Friends: The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning to Isa Blagden, 1850-1861, 2009 (edited by Philip Kelley, Sandra Donaldson, et al.)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems, 2009 (edited by Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor)
  • The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 2010 (5 vols., ed. Sandra Donaldson)


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