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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?
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." (Invisible Friends: The Correspondence of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett and Benjamin Robert Haydon 1842-1845, edited by Willard Bissell Pope, 1972, pp. 18-19)
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 bared his thoughts,
"I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart – and I love you
too." (Post-mark, January 10, 1845) 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. At that time the great love of her life was a cocker spaniel named Flush.
"There is nothing to see in me, – nothing to hear in me – I never learnt to talk as you do in London," she said in a letter Browning. "And do not answer this – I do not write it as a fly trap for compliments. Your spider would scorn me for it too much. (Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Writings, edited by Josie Billington and Philip Davis, 2014, p. 103) It took a correspondence of several hundred letters, before she finally agreed to meet him in May 1845.
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). With the poem 'The Cry of the Children' (1843), beginning with the lines "Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers, / Ere the sorrow comes with years?" she made a call to reform child labour laws. 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. She was always dressed in black as if she were in mourning.
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." (Passages from the French and Italian Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Vol. II, 1871, p. 13) 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
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".