Browning, Elizabeth Barrett
Born March 6, 1806, in Durham, England; died June 29, 1861, in Florence, Italy; daughter of Edward (a county squire) and Mary (Graham-Clarke) Moulton-Barrett; married Robert Browning (a poet and playwright), September 12, 1846; children: Robert Weidemann Barrett. Education: Tutored at home and self-educated.
The Battle of Marathon, W. Lindsell (London, England), 1820.
(Published anonymously) An Essay on the Mind, with Other Poems, Duncan (London, England), 1826.
(Anonymously) Prometheus Bound, Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus; and Miscellaneous Poems, A. J. Valpy (London, England), 1833, Francis (New York, NY), 1851.
The Seraphim and Other Poems, Saunders and Otley (London, England), 1838.
Poems, two volumes, Moxon (London, England), 1844, published as A Drama of Exile: And Other Poems, two volumes, Langley (New York, NY), 1845.
Poems: New Edition (includes Sonnets from the Portuguese), two volumes, Chapman and Hall (London, England), 1850, published as The Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Francis (New York, NY), 1850.
Casa Guidi Windows: A Poem, Chapman and Hall (London, England), 1851.
Poems: Third Edition, two volumes, Chapman and Hall (London, England), 1853.
(With Robert Browning) Two Poems, Chapman and Hall (London, England), 1854.
Poems: Fourth Edition, three volumes, Chapman and Hall (London, England), 1856.
Aurora Leigh, Chapman and Hall (London, England), 1857, Francis (New York, NY), 1857, revised edition, Chapman and Hall, 1859.
Poems before Congress, Chapman and Hall (London, England), 1860, published as Napoleon III in Italy, and Other Poems, Francis (New York, NY), 1860.
Last Poems, Chapman and Hall (London, England), 1862.
(With Richard Hengist Horne) Psyche Apocalypte: A Lyrical Drama, [London, England], 1876.
New Poems by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by Frederic G. Kenyon, Smith, Elder (London, England), 1914, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1915.
The Poet's Enchiridion, edited by H. Buxton Forman, Bibliophile Society (Boston, MA), 1914.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Hitherto Unpublished Poems and Stories, with an Unedited Autobiography, two volumes, edited by H. Buxton Forman, Bibliophile Society (Boston, MA), 1914.
The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets, Chapman and Hall (London, England), 1863, published as Essays on the Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets, Miller (New York, NY), 1863.
Diary by E. B. B.: The Unpublished Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1831-1832, edited by Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1969.
The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, six volumes, Smith, Elder (London, England), 1889-90.
The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by G. Kenyon, Smith, Elder (London, England), 1897.
The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by Harriet Waters Preston, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1900.
The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, six volumes, edited by Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, Crowell (New York, NY), 1900.
Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Addressed to Richard Hengist Horne, two volumes, edited by S. R. Townshend, Bentley (London, England), 1877.
The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, two volumes, edited by Frederic G. Kenyon, Smith, Elder (London, England), 1897.
Letters to Robert Browning and Other Correspondents, edited by Thomas J. Wise, [London, England], 1916.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to Her Sister, 1846-1859, edited by Leonard Huxley, Murray (London, England), 1929.
Letters from Elizabeth Barrett to B. R. Haydon, edited by Martha Hale Shackford, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1939.
Elizabeth Barrett to Miss Mitford: The Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford, edited by Betty Miller, Murray (London, England), 1954.
Letters of the Brownings to George Barrett, edited by Paul Landis, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1958.
The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, 1845-1846, two volumes, edited b Elvan Kintner, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1969.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy, 1849-1861, edited by Peter N. Heydon and Philip Kelley, Quadrangle/New York Times Books (New York, NY), 1973.
"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." These lines from Sonnets from the Portuguese form the core of almost any literate person's knowledge of quotable poetry, yet many forget who wrote them. These are not from a sonnet by William Shakespeare, but rather from one by the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. As an essayist in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography wrote, "among all women poets of the English-speaking world in the nineteenth century, none was held in higher critical esteem or was more admired for the independence and courage of her views than Elizabeth Barrett Browning." Married to poet and playwright Robert Browning, Barrett Browning out-produced her famous husband during the decade and a half they were married. Making their home in Florence, Italy, the couple was besieged by visitors from abroad; most of them made the pilgrimage to see Elizabeth. In fact Browning was one of the first poets to gain a simultaneous following both in her native England and in the United States.
Revered in her own lifetime as one of the finest poets in England and even touted as a possible poet laureate, Browning spiraled into obscurity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, after decades of being out of style and favor, Browning made a resurgence in the late twentieth century. Dictionary of Literary Biographer contributor Beverly Taylor explained Browning's re-emergence: "By the 1950s she was represented in anthologies or literary studies almost entirely by Sonnets from the Portuguese,… revered as a paean of devotion to her husband yet frequently derided for its supposed sentimentality. Her most ambitious work, Aurora Leigh, went through more than twenty editions by 1900 but none between 1905 and 1978. Although in anthologies and literary histories after 1900 the tendency of scholars to mention her as an appendix to discussions of Robert Browning and refer to her patronizingly as 'Mrs. Browning' or 'Elizabeth' has long obscured her significant literary achievement, since the 1970s Elizabeth Barrett Browning has increasingly been recognized as a powerful, independent voice of social criticism and an innovative poet whose experimentation with rhyme and rhythms (frequently lamented by reviewers in her day) anticipated movements in modern versification."
The Squire's Daughter
Born Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett on March 6, 1806, "Ba," as she was nicknamed, was the oldest of eleven surviving children of Edward Moulton-Barrett and Mary Graham-Clarke. Moulton-Barrett was by this time a country squire, his wealth based on Jamaican sugar plantations. Soon after Elizabeth's birth the family moved from Durham, England, to a proper squire's home at Hope End, in the Malvern Hills of Herefordshire. Hope End was an estate of almost 500 acres, with a Georgian house which the father converted into stables. He built a new mansion, Turkish in design, with all the finest and richest materials, and landscaped the grounds with ponds, grottos, and gardens, turning Hope End into an opulent family setting.
Here Elizabeth Barrett grew up pursuing many of the activities of the privileged classes: she and her brothers and sisters went for long walks, had picnics, and held amateur theatricals. She also rode her pony along the lanes of the estate. She was largely self-educated, borrowing her brother Edward's tutor at first, then later branching out for classical studies to a neighbor, Hugh Stuart Boyd, a blind scholar who formed a close relationship with the young girl. Unlike her more outdoors-loving siblings, Elizabeth formed an early love of books and began composing poetry at age four. By the time she was ten she had read the histories of Greece, Rome, and England, and had imbibed Shakespeare's best plays, as well as the work of Alexander Pope. At eleven she began her study of Greek, Latin, and French, reading the great authors of each language. She even learned enough Hebrew to read the Old
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
Testament in its original language. From the French she gleaned a sense of liberalism; her readings of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau stuck with her throughout her life, as did the works of Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecroft.
At age eleven Elizabeth wrote her first book, The Battle of Marathon, a 1,500-line epic in heroic couplets celebrating that famous battle between the Athenians and the Persians. The poem was privately printed by her father. By age fifteen she had published two poems in the New Monthly magazine. However, that same year she fell ill from an undiagnosed complaint. Two of her sisters also suffered from this illness, but quickly recovered, while Elizabeth lingered in the sick bed long enough for her family to begin treating her as an invalid. Sent to a spa, she was treated for a year for a supposed spinal injury and returned home weakened, for she had been confined to bed for almost the entire time. Doctor's orders were for her to avoid any strenuous activity, which included reading and writing.
A Poet Emerges
Elizabeth Barrett ignored such prescriptions, setting to work on an ambitious 1,300-line poem in couplets that would trace the history of science, philosophy, and poetry from ancient Greece to the nineteenth century, and celebrate various liberal political movements as well as the poetry of Lord Byron.
The resulting An Essay on the Mind, with Other Poems was published anonymously in 1826 and met critical appraisal that generally praised the author's erudition but decried the work as pretentious and arid intellectualism. As Taylor noted, such reviews "established what would become a theme in contemporary criticism [of Barrett's work]—Barrett's unusual, even 'unwomanly' erudition."
Barrett suffered personal setbacks with the death of her beloved mother in 1828 and then the forced sale of Hope End in 1832. The Jamaican sugar plantations had been badly mismanaged for years, and finally things came to a head; Hope End had to be liquidated. The sale was a humiliation for Barrett's father, though the family was left relatively well off. They moved first to the coastal town of Sidmouth, and then in 1835 to London, where Barrett would live until her marriage.
While residing at Sidmouth, Barrett anonymously published a translation of Aeschylus's drama about Prometheus together with some of her poems, Prometheus Bound, Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus; and Miscellaneous Poems. The Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography essayist noted that the miscellaneous poems of the title "are all immature in content and expression and give little promise of their author's future distinction." Barrett completed the translation in two weeks, an exercise and a result of her work with Boyd, for the classicist lived nearby the family in Sidmouth and the two spent a great deal of time together, with Barrett helping the older man get his text on the Greek Christian Fathers ready for publication—much to the neglect of her own poetry.
Gains Public Renown
Settled in London, Barrett began work on another collection, The Seraphim and Other Poems, the first collection to bear her name at publication. The title poem of seventy-eight pages features the conversation of two angels discussing the Crucifixion and Christ's suffering on the cross. Taylor noted that the theme of the poem is "not heroic rebellion but the divine submission of Christ." She went on to observe: "Through Christ's humility and suffering the angels learn to value earthly pain above celestial tranquility." Among the shorter poems, "Isobel's Child," about the death of a three-month-old baby in its mother's arms, became an especial favorite of the critics and public alike. This collection brought the usual criticisms about poetry not being a woman's provenance, but also won praise in many influential journals, such as the Athenaeum and the Quarterly Review. Barrett had arrived on the London literary scene.
However, just as she was earning respect and a degree of renown, illness again intruded in the form of a bronchial infection. Barrett was sent to a warmer climate on the south coast of Devon to the town of Torquay. For the next three years she was largely bedridden, and the drowning death of her closest and dearest brother, Edward, in 1840, exacerbated matters. When she finally returned to London in 1841 she believed the rest of her life would be lived as an invalid. She repaired to her room, surrounded by busts of famous poets and accompanied by her dog, Flush, and stayed there for much of the next five years. She had a few friends who would come to visit, such as the poet John Kenyon and the writer Mary Russell Mitford. Otherwise she lived with her books, wrote letters, and continued to write poetry, freed at least by her illness from any domestic household duties.
In 1844 Barrett published the fruits of her recent labors in the two-volume Poems, a work that "established Barrett as one of the major poets of the day," according to Taylor. With the long poem "A Drama of Exile," she takes up John Milton's Paradise Lost where that great poet had left it. "Lady Geraldine's Courtship: A Romance of the Age," about a young poet who falls in love with an earl's daughter, "Bertha in the Lane," about the death of a jilted woman, and "The Cry of the Children," dealing with child labor, are other memorable works from this collection.
From Sick Bed to Motherhood
Publication of Poems brought not only further recognition, but also attracted the notice of young poet and playwright Robert Browning. Barrett had alluded to Browning's work in her "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," and Browning returned the compliment by writing to Barrett, expressing his admiration not only for her verses but for her as a person. Soon Browning was a regular visitor to the Barrett domicile at 50 Wimpole Street. Though six years younger than Barrett, he was strongly attracted to her. Barrett began composing poems detailing the progression of their love, later collected in Sonnets from the Portuguese. This courtship progressed despite the objections of Barrett's father, an autocrat who wanted his children to remain dependent on him. Barrett, however, knew her own mind. By September of 1845 she had agreed to marry the younger man; the following year they were joined in matrimony at a parish church not far from her home. Almost immediately, the couple left for the warmer climate of Italy.
In the more hospitable climate of Italy, Barrett bloomed. The couple settled first in Pisa, but by 1847 had moved on to Florence where they rented
the second floor of an old city palace, the Casa Guidi. It was here where Barrett, now Barrett Browning, would live and work for the rest of her life. It was also the birthplace, in 1849, of her son, Robert Weidemann. Barrett was forty-three at the time. The couple were visited by friends and admirers from both sides of the Atlantic, including Thomas Carlyle, William Makepeace Thackeray, Owen Meredith, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The year of her son's birth Barrett showed her husband the love poems she had written during their courtship and he convinced her to publish them. The title Sonnets from the Portuguese was chosen to make it appear that these were not autobiographical, but rather translations. The first publication of the forty-four Petrarchan sonnets appeared in the 1850 new edition of Poems. Taylor commented that Sonnets from the Portuguese is "recognized as one of the finest sonnet sequences in English." The same critic also noted that "the sequence is markedly innovative. [Barrett] Browning breaks with the conventions of the Renaissance sonnet sequence … by making the speaker and lover a woman." Taylor further explained: "While readers have been perennially engrossed by the biographical components of the series, the sonnets' intricate artistry—which prompted critics to rank them with those of Shakespeare—is too often overlooked." Critical reaction to the new edition of Poems ranged from those who lamented what they considered obfuscations and clumsy rhymes (but which later reviewers see as presaging modern modalities and rhythms employed by poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins), to those such as the critic for the Athenaeum who proposed her for the next poet laureate of England.
Pens Epic Aurora Leigh
The Italian years proved to be rich ones for Barrett in terms of her poetry. Two volumes of political poems, Casa Guidi Windows and Poems before Congress, deal with Italian independence and with issues such as slavery and women's rights. One of the major works of her later career is Aurora Leigh, a narrative of 11,000 lines telling the story of the eponymous heroine from her birth in Italy to her early years in rural England, her successful literary career in London, her move to Florence, and finally her marriage to her only true love. While using the broad outlines of Barrett's own life, the poem deals with hard-hitting topics such as the role of educated women in Victorian England, the possible dangers of extreme socialist philosophy, and the plight of the fallen woman. The last theme in particular, as articulated through the misadventures of a minor character in the drama, Marian Erle, who is kidnaped by a rival and sent to a French brothel, earned the work the reputation of a racy title with critics. The public, however, as well as fellow artists, championed the book, sending it through nineteen editions in its first twenty-eight years after initial publication. Taylor noted that Aurora Leigh is "simultaneously an epic and a novel." The work, in Taylor's opinion, "bluntly argues that the stuff of ambitious poetry should not be the remote chivalry of a distant past, neither King Arthur nor Charlemagne, but the pulsing life of the present day as experienced by ordinary people."
If you enjoy the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
If you enjoy the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, you may also want to check out the following:
Illness plagued Barrett's final years. Devastated by the 1861 death of Italian statesman Camillo di Cavour, who Barrett saw as the one man who could unify Italy, she fell into a low state and caught a severe cold that went into her chest. She died in her husband's arms on June 29, 1861, acclaimed in obituary notices of the day as the greatest woman poet in English history.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Barnes, Warner, A Bibliography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1967.
Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 4: Victorian Writers, 1832-1890, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 32: Victorian Poets before 1850, 1984, pp. 53-89, Volume 199: Victorian Woman Poets, 1999, pp. 79-99.
Hayter, Alethea, Mrs. Browning: A Poet's Work and Its Setting, Faber and Faber (London, England), 1962.
Hewlett, Dorothy, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1952.
Hudson, Gladys W., An Elizabeth Barrett Browning Concordance, four volumes, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1973.
Kelley, Philip, and Ronald Hudson, editors, The Browning's Correspondence: A Checklist, Browning Institute (New York, NY), 1978.
Lupton, Mary Jane, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Feminist Press (Westbury, NY), 1972.
Mander, Rosalie, Mrs. Browning: The Story of Elizabeth Barrett, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (London, England), 1980.
Marks, Jeannette, The Family of the Barrett: A Colonial Romance, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1938.
Markus, Julia, Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
McAleer, Edward C., The Brownings of Casa Guidi, Browning Institute (New York, NY), 1979.
Moers, Ellen, Literary Women, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1976.
Peterson, William S., Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning: An Annotated Bibliography, 1951-1970, Browning Institute (New York, NY), 1974.
Radley, Virginia L., Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Twayne (New York, NY), 1972.
Stone, Marjorie, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Stott, Rebecca, and Simon Avery, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Longman (London, England), 2003.
Biblio, April, 1998, Lucy Gordon, "Through Casa Guidi Windows," p. 16.
Biography, spring, 2003, Joseph Phelan, "Ethnology and Biography: The Case of the Brownings," p. 261.
English Review, February, 2003, Francis O'Gorman, "The Politics of Live in Sonnets from the Portuguese," p.28.
Philological Quarterly, winter, 2000, Sueann Schatz, "Aurora Leigh as Paradigm of Domestic-Professional Fiction," p. 91.
Studies in the Literary Imagination, fall, 2002, Natalie M. Houston, "Affecting Authenticity: Sonnets from the Portuguese and Modern Love," p. 99.
Texas Studies in Literature and Language, summer, 1997, Ranen Omer, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Apocalypse," p. 97.
Victorian Poetry, winter, 2001, Steve Dillon, "Barrett Browning's Poetic Vocation, p. 509;" fall, 2002, Marjorie Stone, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning," p. 290; fall, 2003, Marjorie Stone, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning," p. 377.
World and I, October, 2002, Michael Timko, "Love Lost and Found—The Lives of Elizabeth and Robert Browning," p. 302.
Academy of American Poets, http://www.poets.org/ (November 15, 2004), "Elizabeth Barrett Browning."
Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.com/ (November 15, 2004), "Elizabeth Barrett Browning."
Women's Studies Database, http://www.mith2.umd.edu/ (November 15, 2004), "Elizabeth Barrett Browning."*
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett
BORN: 1806, Durham, England
DIED: 1861, Florence, Italy
Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850)
Aurora Leigh (1856)
Essays on the Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets (1863)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is recognized as a powerful voice of social criticism, as well as an innovative poet whose experiments with rhyme and diction have influenced movements in poetry throughout the years. Although Barrett Browning is best remembered today for Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of love poems, she also wrote about social oppression with the same depth of emotion.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Large Family with a Domineering Father Elizabeth Barrett was born on March 6, 1806, near Durham, England, to Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett, a native of St. James, Jamaica, and Mary Graham-Clarke. The oldest of eleven surviving children of a wealthy and domineering father, she had eight brothers and two sisters. While forbidding his daughters to marry, her father nevertheless encouraged their scholarly pursuits. Her father was so proud of Elizabeth's extraordinary ability in classical studies that he privately published her 1,462-line narrative The Battle of Marathon when she was fourteen.
An Accomplished Scholar and Writer, Despite Illness In 1821, Barrett and her sisters began suffering from headaches, side pain, twitching muscles, and general discomfort. While her sisters recovered quickly, Barrett did not. She was treated for a spinal problem, though doctors could not diagnose her exact malady. Recent examination of Barrett's symptoms has led to a hypothesis that she suffered from either tuberculosis of the spine or bronchial difficulties. Tuberculosis infected nearly seven in ten people in England in the early nineteenth century, before doctors understood how the disease was spread.
Even with her physical problems, Barrett continued to study and write, and she anonymously published An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems in 1826. The volume established what would become a theme in contemporary criticism—Barrett's unusual, even “unwomanly,” scholarly knowledge. Barrett published Prometheus Bound: Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus, and Miscellaneous Poems in 1833, again anonymously, followed by The Seraphim, and Other Poems, the first book published under her own name, in 1838. The collection attracted much favorable attention.
During Barrett's early years of publishing, she suffered two devastating losses: the unexpected death of her mother and the forced auction of her family home. Barrett's father moved the family to London in 1835. At this time, Barrett was in such poor health that her physician recommended she live for a while in a warmer climate. Torquay, on the south coast of England, was selected, and she remained there for three years as an invalid as various members of her family took turns living with her and caring for her.
When she returned to the family's London home, she felt that she had left her youth behind and that the future held little more than permanent infirmity and confinement to her bedroom. Despite her frail health, she was more fortunate in her circumstances than most female writers of her time. Thanks to inheritances from her grandmother and her uncle, she was the only one of the Barrett children who was independently wealthy. As the oldest daughter in a family without a mother, she normally would have been expected to spend much of her time supervising the domestic servants, but her weakness prevented her from leaving her room. Relieved of all household burdens and financial cares, she was free to devote herself to her intellectual and creative pursuits.
Literary Success and Marriage Publication of her 1844 two-volume collection Poems established Barrett as one of the major poets of her day. The most important work of her life, however, turned out to be a single poem. Barrett admired the work of Robert Browning, a little-known poet six years her junior, and she expressed her appreciation of him in a poem of her own. Browning responded in a letter to Barrett, the first of 574 that they exchanged over the next twenty months. The letter began abruptly: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett.” He continued, “I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart—and I love you too.” Browning became a frequent visitor, not only inspiring Barrett's poetry but also encouraging her to exercise outdoors to improve her health.
In September 1846, ignoring her history of poor health and her father's disapproval, Barrett quietly married Browning. Her father never spoke to her again. The couple moved to Italy and settled in Florence in 1848,
where their only child was born in March 1849. The birth of her son and the intellectually stimulating presence of her husband inspired a creative energy in Barrett Browning that she had never before experienced. She complained to her husband that, in comparison to his worldly experiences, she had lived like a blind poet.
Sonnets from the Portuguese The courtship of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning inspired Barrett Browning's series of forty-four Petrarchan sonnets, recognized as one of the finest sonnet sequences in English. Written during their 1845–1846 correspondence, Sonnets from the Portuguese remained Barrett Browning's secret until 1849, when she presented the collection to her husband. Despite his conviction that a writer's private life should remain sealed from the public, he felt the quality of these works demanded publication. They appeared in Barrett Browning's 1850 edition of Poems, her personal history thinly concealed by a title that implies the poems are translations.
Italian Politics Barrett Browning's subject matter became increasingly bold. “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point,” a dramatic monologue, powerfully criticizes institutionalized slavery, showing herself to be in full sympathy with the abolitionist movement in the United States. Casa Guidi Windows (1851) records Barrett Browning's reactions to the Italian struggle for unity. The unification of the various Italian states into one country in 1861 was the culmination of a movement known as the Risorgimento, which was made up of a series of regional revolutions and struggles in Italy. These were seen as a continuation of the American and French revolutions decades earlier. Barrett Browning was in sympathy with the Italian revolutionaries. The volume showed her increasing conviction that poetry should be actively involved in life and, perhaps more importantly, her confidence that a female poet should speak out about political and social issues. In this respect, Barrett Browning differed from such English writers as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë or Emily Brontë, all of whom seemed to avoid any mention of world politics in their novels.
Barrett Browning's passionate engagement in Italian politics was also the subject of her 1860 collection, Poems before Congress. Barrett Browning criticizes political inaction that allows crimes against individual liberty. Furthermore, she focuses on a nation's moral identity and asserts that it is a woman's responsibility to be vocal about political issues. Instead of praising Barrett Browning's combination of womanly feeling and manly thought, as notices of earlier works had done, reviewers of this volume complained that she had trespassed into masculine subjects.
Novelistic Experiment Barrett Browning remained concerned about social issues in England during this period as well. Her Aurora Leigh (1856) is an ambitious novel in blank verse that embodies both Barrett Browning's strengths and weaknesses as a writer. It bluntly argues that the topic of ambitious poetry should not be the remote chivalry of a distant past but the present day as experienced by ordinary people. Aurora Leigh achieves this goal of societal relevance, for it deals with an array of pressing Victorian social problems such as the exploitation of seamstresses, limited employment opportunities for women, sexual double standards, drunkenness, domestic violence, schisms between economic and social classes, and various plans for reform. Nothing stirred up more controversy than Barrett Browning's candid treatment of the situation of the “fallen woman”—a subject that was considered by the Victorian public to be outside the sight or understanding of a serious novelist or poet.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Browning's famous contemporaries include:
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886): Most work by this famously reclusive American poet was discovered and published after her death.
Mary Russell Mitford (1787–1855): A close friend of Barrett Browning's, Mitford was an English novelist and playwright.
Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872): Mazzini, an Italian politician and revolutionary, advocated uniting the various states and kingdoms into one independent republic via a popular uprising.
Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882): Garibaldi was an Italian soldier who was instrumental in bringing about a unified Italian republic.
Charles Fourier (1772–1837): This French philosopher created the word féminisme in 1837 and argued that women's rights were a logical extension of social progress.
Barrett Browning fell ill with a sore throat and cold on June 20, 1861. A rupture of abscesses in her lungs proved fatal, and she died in her husband's arms on June29. In early 1862, Robert Browning published a final collection of his wife's poetry as Last Poems, compiled from a list she had drawn up herself. Some of the twenty-eight poems were written prior to her marriage, some on recent political and personal events. Some of the pieces in Last Poems address the power imbalance in relationships between men and women. Reviews of this final volume sounded familiar inconsistencies: commending Barrett Browning for her purity and womanly nature while charging that her verse was coarse, irreverent, and infected by excessive anti-English political fervor.
Works in Literary Context
Barrett Browning's unorthodox rhyme and diction, once scorned, have been cited more recently as daring experiments. Kathryn Burlinson writes that “the half-rhymes, as well as the metrical irregularities, neologisms, compound-words, and lacunae that infuriated or disturbed her contemporaries now appear among the most interesting aspects of her work. [Virginia] Woolf's claim that Barrett Browning had ‘some complicity in the development of modern poetry’ is an acute reminder that she influenced many later poets, not only the Pre-Raphaelites but 20th-century authors such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.”
Unconventional Sonnets Sonnets from the Portuguese breaks with the conventions of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence—so closely associated with Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare—by making the speaker a woman. Such poems were highly unusual in English literature during Barrett Browning's time because they directly express female physical desire. The poems further challenge Petrarchan conventions by making marriage not the obstruction of love but its fulfillment. Margaret Reynolds commented, “This time, in the Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaking subject is clearly a woman and a poet. Her beloved is in a different style too, he is also a poet and a speaking subject. By the end of the sequence of forty-four poems they are equal … she escapes an old regime where she was enjoined to silence or riddles, and she transforms herself into a speaking subject who can take her own story to market.”
A New Kind of Fiction This blank-verse poem, nearly eleven thousand lines longer than Milton's Paradise Lost, constitutes a new genre, for it is simultaneously an epic and a drama. In a sense, Barrett Browning's version of modern epic develops from Wordsworth's own adaptation of the genre for his time; however, while he chose the poet's autobiography as his subject, Barrett Browning contrived an ambitious fiction that is simultaneously an autobiography of an artist, a love story, and a poem of social protest. Novelist George Eliot said that she read Aurora Leigh at least three times and declared Barrett Browning “the first woman who has produced a work which exhibits all the peculiar powers without the negations of her sex.”
Works in Critical Context
The critical view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a major poet—not to mention the greatest female poet of her time—persisted nearly to the end of the nineteenth century, when attention shifted to her life. Interest in her life then overshadowed the value of her work. As Barrett Browning became romanticized as a loving wife, her out-spoken critique of her culture, her visionary social critique, and even her technical daring faded from the picture, leaving in its place a sentimental parody of both the work and the woman. Reconsideration of her poetry by feminist critics since the 1970s, however, increasingly values its modernity, specifically in its depiction of sexual politics and more broadly in its explanation of economic and political issues.
Sonnets from the Portuguese When Sonnets from the Portuguese was first published, most critics ignored the work. It was not until a few years later, when the autobiographical nature of the poems became known, that the sonnets received widespread critical recognition. Response to the poems was glowingly favorable. Early commentators praised their sincerity and intensity; most agreed that no woman had ever written in such openly passionate tones. In addition, it was argued that the emotion of Barrett Browning's verse was effectively balanced by the strict technical restraints of the sonnet form. Several critics compared the adept technique utilized in the sonnets to that of John Milton and Shakespeare.
By the turn of the century, critics became more cautious in their praise. Barrett Browning's emotional expression was reevaluated in later years; what had been earlier defined as impassioned honesty was now considered overbearingly sentimental. Angela Leighton says, “Recent feminist critics … tend to pass over these ideologically unfashionable poems. Somehow, their subject and their inspiration, which lack the larger sexual politics of Aurora Leigh, strike contemporary critics as naked and naive. They are, it is said with wearying regularity, simply too ‘sincere.”’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's work argued, in part, that women were as capable as men. Here are some other works that argue for equality between the sexes:
A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1791), a nonfiction work by Mary Wollstonecraft. This text argues that women should receive an education and similar rights to men.
The Woman in Her House (1881), a nonfiction work by Concepción Arenal. In this book, the Spanish feminist argues that women should aim to be more than simply wives and mothers.
Story of an African Farm (1973), a novel by Mary Daly. The South African writer's first novel tells of three white children growing up in South Africa.
“Ain't I a Woman?” (1851), by Sojourner Truth. This speech, given at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention by a political activist and former slave, argues against the myth of the delicate woman.
On the other hand, some critics have stressed such technical merits of the sonnets as their structure and
imagery and have expressed admiration for the cycle in its entirety. Jerome Mazzaro writes, “At times, in the Sonnets from the Portuguese, form and content are so deliberately left at odds to mark not excess but empty and artificial boundaries that periodically, on grounds independent of sincerity, critics … have called the competence of Barrett Browning's verse technique into question.”
Both as a revealing chronicle of a famous love story and as a technically skilled rendering of poetry's most demanding form, Sonnets from the Portuguese endures as a testimony to Barrett Browning's poetic skills. According to Reynolds, they are “accessible enough to be used by everyone, sentimental enough to be felt by us all. Since … the so-called Browning love letters were published, the Brownings' romance and Barrett Browning's poems have become the true measure of romantic love.”
Responses to Literature
- Barret Browning's sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?” is by far her most well known. Read the sonnet for yourself and think carefully about the poet's choices throughout the poem. What do you think accounts for this poem's enduring popularity?
- Think about the writers, actors, and musicians that you like. How does knowing the details of their personal lives affect your experience of their art? In other words, do you get distracted by their personal life when reading, watching, or listening to their work?
- Today, most people accept that men and women are equally intelligent. However, far fewer women than men pursue math and science careers, but girls tend to get higher grades than boys do. Using your library and the Internet, research the possible reasons for these unusual facts and then write a plan for “leveling the playing field.”
- Barret Browning was avidly interested in the unification of Italy, or the Risorgimento, that was under way while she lived in that country. An excellent novel set during this period is Giuseppe di Lamp-edusa's The Leopard (1958), a huge best seller in Italy. The novel was made into an award-winning film of the same name in 1963.
Burlinson, Kathryn. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed. London: St. James Press, 1991.
Leighton, Angela. “Stirring ‘a Dust of Figures:’ Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Love.” Critical Essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
Mazzaro, Jerome. “Mapping Sublimity: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese.” Essays in Literature (Fall 1991): vol. 18, no. 2: 166.
Reynolds, Margaret. “Love's Measurement in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. Studies in Browning and His Circle (1993): vol. 21: 53–67.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett
Born: March 6, 1806
Died: June 29, 1861
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.
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 (1812–1889). 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.
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 (1882–1941) 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 (1830–1886) 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.
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."
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). □
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING
(1806 - 1861)
English poet and translator.ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: INTRODUCTION
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: PRINCIPAL WORKS
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: PRIMARY SOURCES
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: GENERAL COMMENTARY
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: TITLE COMMENTARY
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: FURTHER READING