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Victorian Poetry

Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806-1861

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Elizabeth Barrett, an English poet of the Romantic Movement, was born in 1806 in Durham, England. The oldest of twelve children, Elizabeth was the first in her family born in England in over two hundred years. For centuries, the Barrett family, who were part Creole, had lived in Jamaica, where they owned sugar plantations and relied on slave labor. Elizabeth's father, Edward Barrett, chose to raise his family in England, while his fortune grew in Jamaica. Educated at home, Elizabeth apparently had read passages from Paradise Lost and a number of Shakespearean plays, among other great works, before the age of ten. By her twelfth year she had written her first "epic" poem, which consisted of four books of rhyming couplets. Two years later, Elizabeth developed a lung ailment that plagued her for the rest of her life. Doctors began treating her with morphine, which she would take until her death. While saddling a pony when she was fifteen, Elizabeth also suffered a spinal injury. Despite her ailments, her education continued to flourish. Throughout her teenage years, Elizabeth taught herself Hebrew so that she could read the Old Testament; her interests later turned to Greek studies. Accompanying her appetite for the classics was a passionate enthusiasm for her Christian faith.

In 1826 Elizabeth anonymously published her collection An Essay on Mind and Other Poems. Two years later, her mother passed away. The slow abolition of slavery in England and mismanagement of the plantations depleted the Barrett's income, and in 1832, Elizabeth's father sold his rural estate at a public auction. He moved his family to a coastal town and rented cottages for the next three years, before settling permanently in London. While living on the sea coast, Elizabeth published her translation of Prometheus Bound (1833), by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus.

Gaining notoriety for her work in the 1830's, Elizabeth continued to live in her father's London house under his tyrannical rule. He began sending Elizabeth's younger siblings to Jamaica to help with the family's estates. Elizabeth bitterly opposed slavery and did not want her siblings sent away. During this time, she wrote The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), expressing Christian sentiments in the form of classical Greek tragedy. Due to her weakening disposition she was forced to spend a year at the sea of Torquay accompanied by her brother Edward, whom she referred to as "Bro." He drowned later that year while sailing at Torquay and Elizabeth returned home emotionally broken, becoming an invalid and a recluse. She spent the next five years in her bedroom at her father's home. She continued writing, however, and in 1844 produced a collection entitled simply Poems. This volume gained the attention of poet Robert Browning, whose work Elizabeth had praised in one of her poems, and he wrote her a letter.

Elizabeth and Robert, who was six years her junior, exchanged 574 letters over the next twenty months. Immortalized in 1930 in the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street, by Rudolf Besier (1878-1942), their romance was bitterly opposed by her father, who did not want any of his children to marry. In 1846, the couple eloped and settled in Florence, Italy, where Elizabeth's health improved and she bore a son, Robert Wideman Browning. Her father never spoke to her again. Elizabeth's Sonnets from the Portuguese, dedicated to her husband and written in secret before her marriage, was published in 1850. Critics generally consider the Sonnets—one of the most widely known collections of love lyrics in English—to be her best work.

In 1858 Robert and Elizabeth went to France, briefly, and continued on to Normandy, accompanied by Robert's father and sister. They settled for six weeks, during which time Elizabeth's health improved slightly, and the couple moved on to Rome. They moved back to Florence for not quite a year and then returned to Rome again in the hopes of lifting Elizabeth's health. Elizabeth's situation worsened. They returned again to Florence and resided there for the remainder of Elizabeth's life. On the 29th of June 1861 she died in Robert's arms. Moments before her death she told Robert "Our lives are held by God."

Some examples of her work:

Sonnets from the Portuguese XXXVIII

First time he kissed me, he but only kissed The fingers of this hand wherewith I write; And ever since, it grew more clean and white, Slow to world-greetings, quick with its ' Oh, list,' When the angels speak. A ring of amethyst I could not wear here, plainer to my sight, Than that first kiss. The second passed in height The first, and sought the forehead, and half missed, Half falling on the hair. O beyond meed ! That was the chrism of love, which love's own crown, With sanctifying sweetness, did precede. The third upon my lips was folded down In perfect, purple state; since when, indeed, I have been proud and said, ' My love, my own.'

Sonnets from the Portuguese XLIII

How do I love thee ? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. I love thee to the level of everyday's Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for Right; I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise. I love thee with the passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith. I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints,--I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life !--and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.

Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIX

I think of thee !--my thoughts do twine and bud About thee, as wild vines, about a tree, Put out broad leaves, and soon there 's nought to see Except the straggling green which hides the wood. Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood I will not have my thoughts instead of thee Who art dearer, better ! Rather, instantly Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should, Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare, And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee Drop heavily down,--burst, shattered, everywhere ! Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee And breathe within thy shadow a new air, I do not think of thee--I am too near thee.