Skip to main content
Select Source:

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Born: March 6, 1806
Durham, England
Died: June 29, 1861
Florence, Italy

English poet

The works of the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning enjoyed great popularity during her lifetime. Her most enduring poetry has proved to be Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Life at Hope End

Elizabeth Barrett was the first of twelve children born to Edward and Mary Moulton (the Moultons later took the last name Barrett) on March 6, 1806, in Durham, England. Her father was a possessive and demanding man loved by his children even though he rigidly controlled their lives. Elizabeth's childhood was ideal in that the Barretts lived in a lovely setting, a country house called Hope End. She was an excellent rider and enjoyed growing up with her many siblings.

Though she never received any formal education, Elizabeth loved to read. By age eight she had learned to read Homer in the original Greek and had begun to write poetry. In 1819 her father had printed fifty copies of her classic "The Battle of Marathon." In 1826 she published anonymously (without her name), An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, an attempt, as she later noted, to survey history, science, metaphysics (the fundamental nature of reality and being), and poetry from classical Greece to the Victorian day in eighty-eight pages. Elizabeth's fascination with metaphysics and religion became somewhat of an obsession that she described as, "not the deep persuasion of the mild Christian but the wild visions of an enthusiast."

Elizabeth's youthful happiness was not to last. In 1821 she began to suffer from a nervous disorder that caused headaches, weakness, and fainting spells. Some sources trace this lifelong illness to an impatient decision to harness her own horse at age fifteen. Reportedly she fell with the saddle on top of her, damaging her spine. An ongoing prescription for opium (an addictive drug used to relieve pain) was probably a life shortening remedy but a common one for the times. Her mother's health was also unstable. When Elizabeth was twenty her mother became fatally ill. Meanwhile, her father had lost all of his wealth. Rather than move immediately, he refinanced beyond any possibility of repayment so that Mrs. Barrett would never have to leave her beautiful home. After her death, Elizabeth and her family left Hope End forever.

Publications

Barrett continued her poetic career in 1833 with the anonymous publication of Prometheus Bound: Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus, and Miscellaneous Poems. Two years later the Barretts moved to London, England, and in 1838 settled permanently at 50 Wimpole Street. Here Elizabeth started literary friendships that encouraged her writing. During the same year Elizabeth published her first book under her own name, The Seraphim and Other Poems. Though these poems are often filled with heavy-handed sorrow and moral messages, the critics hailed her as a new poet of "extraordinary ability."

In 1838 Barrett's illness worsened and she relocated to a sea resort for her health. Her favorite brother Edward stayed with her. Two years later Edward drowned after a disagreement with Elizabeth. This shock worsened her poor health. For the next five years she remained in her room and saw no one except her family and a few close friends. In 1844, however, the publication of Poems secured her fame. Such poems as "The Dead Pan" and "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" seem shrill and sentimental to today's readers, but they were very popular with Victorian readers and won high praise from critics both in England and the United States.

Romance and renewed health

By far the most significant result of Poems was the beginning of Barrett's relationship with the poet Robert Browning (18121889). Attracted by her praise of his poetry, Browning wrote to her on January 10, 1845, and thus began England's most famous literary love affair. Barrett's illness had led her to feel "completely dead to hope of any kind." Six years his senior and an invalid, Elizabeth could not believe her good fortune. Her progress out of despair into hope and finally joy can be traced in her letters to Browning and in her Sonnets from the Portuguese, written during their courtship and expressing her love for him. The world-famous romance line, "How do I love thee, let me count the ways" comes straight from these sonnets. Because Elizabeth's father had forbidden any of his children to marry, the couple was secretly married on September 12, 1846. In anger and frustration, Mr. Barrett refused ever to see his daughter again. Fortunately Elizabeth had inherited other money.

The Brownings journeyed south through France to Italy. Casa Guidi in Florence was their home for the rest of Mrs. Browning's life. There her health was so improved that on March 9, 1849, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning. In 1850 Browning issued a revised edition of Poems containing the Sonnets from the Portuguese, which her husband had urged her to publish. Modern readers usually find these sonnets her best work. But Victorian readers much preferred her Aurora Leigh, a long poem in blank verse (unrhymed verse) published in 1856.

Social Justice

The major interest of Browning's later years was the Italian struggle for unity and independence. (Until 1859 Italy was a part of Austria). Her keen commitment to social justice is evident in both Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860). In these she attempted to win sympathy for the Italian cause.

This emphasis on social justice led to her poem, A Curse For A Nation, to be published in a Bostonian abolitionist (antislavery) journal. Elizabeth's 1857 publication of Aurora Leigh featured an artist heroine committed to social reform but thwarted by the male domination of the age. Some call it autobiographical. Years later Virginia Woolf (18821941) called this heroine, "the true daughter of her age." Woolf's praise attracted many modern readers to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's work. Elizabeth was a primary inspiration for Emily Dickinson (18301886) as well. No nineteenth century female poet was more esteemed than Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

On June 29, 1861, she died quietly in her husband's arms with a "smile on her face."

For More Information

Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Markus, Julia. Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Taplin, Gardner B. The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Browning, Elizabeth Barrett." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Browning, Elizabeth Barrett." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/browning-elizabeth-barrett

"Browning, Elizabeth Barrett." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/browning-elizabeth-barrett

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The works of the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) enjoyed great popularity during her lifetime. Her most enduring poetry has proved to be Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Elizabeth Barrett was born on March 6, 1806, near Durham. She was the eldest of the 12 children of Edward Moulton Barrett, a possessive and autocratic man loved by his children even though he rigidly controlled their lives. Though she never received any formal education, Elizabeth was a precocious reader, and she began writing poetry at an early age. In 1819 her father had printed 50 copies of her epic "The Battle of Marathon," which she later referred to as "Pope's Homer done over again, or rather undone." In 1826 she published anonymously An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, an attempt, as she later noted, to survey history, science, metaphysics, and poetry from classical Greece to the Victorian day in 88 pages.

Elizabeth's youthful happiness was not to last. In 1821 she began to suffer from a nervous disorder which was to cause headaches, weakness, and fainting spells for the rest of her life. Barrett continued her poetic career in 1833 with the anonymous publication of Prometheus Bound: Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus, and Miscellaneous Poems. Two years later, the Barretts moved to London and in 1838 settled permanently at 50 Wimpole Street. In the same year Elizabeth published her first book under her own name, The Seraphim and Other Poems. Though these poems are often filled with heavy-handed pathos and moralizing, the critics hailed her as a new poet of "extraordinary ability."

In 1838 Barrett became seriously ill. Two years later her favorite brother, Edward, drowned, and this shock seriously aggravated her poor health. For the next 5 years she remained in her room and saw no one except her family and a few close friends. In 1844, however, the publication of Poems secured her fame. Such poems as "The Dead Pan" and "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" seem strident and sentimental to modern readers, but they were very popular with Victorian readers and won high praise from critics in England and the United States.

But the most significant result of Poems was the beginning of Barrett's relationship with the poet Robert Browning. Attracted by her praise of his poetry, Browning wrote to her on Jan. 10, 1845, and thus began England's most famous literary love affair. Barrett's illness had led her to feel "completely dead to hope of any kind." Her progress out of this despair to hope and finally joy can be traced in her letters to Browning and in her Sonnets from the Portuguese, written during their courtship and expressing her love for him. Because Elizabeth's father had forbidden any of his children to marry, the couple were secretly married on Sept. 12, 1846. In anger and frustration, Mr. Barrett refused ever to see his daughter again.

The Brownings journeyed south through France to Italy. Casa Guidi in Florence was their home for the rest of Mrs. Browning's life. There her health was so improved that on March 9, 1849, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning. In 1850 Browning issued a revised edition of Poems containing the Sonnets from the Portuguese, which her husband had urged her to publish. Modern readers usually find these sonnets her best work. But Victorian readers much preferred her Aurora Leigh, a long poem in blank verse published in 1856.

The major interest of Browning's later years was the Italian struggle for unity and independence. Both Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860) attempted to win sympathy for the Italian cause. On June 29, 1861, she died quietly in her husband's arms, with a "smile on her face."

Further Reading

The best biography of Mrs. Browning is Gardner B. Taplin, The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1957). Also useful is Dorothy Hewlett, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Life (1952). A detailed and moving account of the courtship of the Brownings can be obtained from The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, 1845-1846, first edited by their son (2 vols., 1899) and recently re-edited by Elvan Kintner (2 vols., 1969). More of Browning's extensive correspondence is collected in Sir Frederick G. Kenyon's edition of The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2 vols., 1897). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Elizabeth Barrett Browning." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Elizabeth Barrett Browning." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-barrett-browning

"Elizabeth Barrett Browning." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-barrett-browning

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806–61, English poet, b. Durham. A delicate and precocious child, she spent a great part of her early life in a state of semi-invalidism. She read voraciously—philosophy, history, literature—and she wrote verse. In 1838 the Barrett family moved to 50 Wimpole St., London. Six years later Elizabeth published Poems, which brought her immediate fame. The volume was a favorite of the poet Robert Browning, and he began to correspond with her. The two fell in love, but their courtship was secret because of the opposition of Elizabeth's tyrannical father. They married in 1846 and traveled to Italy, where most of their married life was spent and where their one son was born. Mrs. Browning threw herself into the cause of Italian liberation from Austria. "Casa Guidi," their home in Florence, is preserved as a memorial. Happy in her marriage, Mrs. Browning recovered her health in Italy, and her work as a poet gained in strength and significance. Her greatest poetry, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), was inspired by her own love story. Casa Guidi Windows (1851), on Italian liberty, and Aurora Leigh (1857), a novel in verse, followed. During her lifetime Mrs. Browning was considered a better poet than her husband. Today her life and personality excite more interest than her work. Although as a poet she has been criticized for diffuseness, pedantry, and sentimentality, she reveals in such poems as "The Cry of the Children" and some of the Sonnets from the Portuguese a highly individual gift for lyric poetry.

Bibliography

See The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1845–46 (1899, new ed. 1930); R. Besier, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1930), the most popular dramatization of the Brownings' love story; biographies by G. B. Taplin (1957), I. C. Clarke (1929, repr. 1970), and M. Forster (1989); The Courtship of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (1985) by D. Karlin; studies by H. Cooper (1988) and G. Stephenson (1989); bibliography by W. Barnes (1967).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Browning, Elizabeth Barrett." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Browning, Elizabeth Barrett." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/browning-elizabeth-barrett

"Browning, Elizabeth Barrett." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/browning-elizabeth-barrett

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett (1806–61) English poet. In 1846 she secretly married Robert Browning and, from 1847, the couple lived in Italy. She began to write verse early in life. Her first volume, The Battle of Marathon, was published privately in 1820. The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838) and Poems (1844) established her widespread popularity, later confirmed by her collection of 1850, which included Sonnets from the Portuguese, and Aurora Leigh (1857). She was regarded as the pre-eminent English woman poet of her age.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Browning, Elizabeth Barrett." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Browning, Elizabeth Barrett." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/browning-elizabeth-barrett

"Browning, Elizabeth Barrett." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/browning-elizabeth-barrett

Barrett, Elizabeth

Elizabeth Barrett: see Browning, Elizabeth Barrett.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Barrett, Elizabeth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Barrett, Elizabeth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/barrett-elizabeth

"Barrett, Elizabeth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/barrett-elizabeth