She was born at Cohnadatia Hall (now demolished) near Durham, England
in 1806, the daughter of Creole plantation owner Edward Barrett, who
assumed the last name on succeeding to the estates of his grandfather
in Jamaica. She was christened in Kelloe church, where a plaque describes
her as 'a great poetess, a noble woman, a devoted wife'. Her mother
was Mary Graham-Clarke of a wealthy family of Newcastle upon Tyne. She
is one of the descendents of King Edward III of England. 
her youth at Hope End, near Great Malvern. While still a child she showed
her gift, and her father published 50 copies of a juvenile epic, on
the Battle of Marathon. She was educated at home, but owed her profound
knowledge of the Greek language and much mental stimulus to her early
friendship with the blind scholar, Hugh Stuart Boyd, who was a neighbour.
In her early teens,
Elizabeth contracted a lung complaint, possibly tuberculosis, although
the exact nature has been the subject of much speculation, and was treated
as an invalid by her parents. For a girl of that time, she was well-educated,
having been allowed to attend lessons with her brother's tutor. She
published her first poem, anonymously, at the age of fourteen. In 1826
she published anonymously An Essay on Mind and Other Poems.
the abolition of slavery, of which she was a supporter (see her work
The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point (1849)), considerably reduced Mr.
Barrett's means. He accordingly disposed of his estate and moved with
his family first to Sidmouth and afterwards to London. At the former
location Miss Barrett wrote Prometheus Bound (1835). After her move
to London she fell into delicate health, her lungs being threatened.
This did not, however, interfere with her literary labours, and she
contributed to various periodicals "The Romaunt of Margaret",
"The Romaunt of the Page", "The Poet's Vow", and
other pieces. In 1838 appeared The Seraphim and Other Poems (including
the death of her favorite brother gave a serious shock to her already
fragile health; and for a time she hovered between life and death. Eventually,
however, she regained strength, and meanwhile her fame was growing.
The publishing about 1841 of "The Cry of the Children" gave
it a great impulse, and about the same time she contributed some critical
papers in prose to Richard Henry Horne's New Spirit of the Age. In 1844
she published two volumes of Poems, which comprised "The Drama
of Exile", "Vision of Poets", and "Lady Geraldine's
In 1845 she met
for the first time her future husband, Robert Browning. Their courtship
and marriage, owing to her delicate health and the extraordinary objections
entertained by Mr. Barrett to the marriage of any of his children, were
carried out under somewhat peculiar and romantic circumstances. After
a private marriage and a secret departure from her home, she accompanied
her husband to the Italian Peninsula, which became her home almost continuously
until her death, and with the political aspirations of which she and
her husband both thoroughly identified themselves.
The union proved
one of unalloyed happiness to both, though it was never forgiven by
Mr. Barrett. In her new circumstances her strength greatly increased.
The Brownings settled in Florence, and there she wrote Casa Guidi Windows
(1851)—by many considered her strongest work—under the inspiration
of the Tuscan struggle for liberty. In Florence she became close friend
of British-born poets Isabella Blagden and Theodosia Trollope Garrow.
Aurora Leigh, her
largest, and perhaps the most popular of her longer poems, appeared
in 1856. In 1850 The Sonnets from the Portuguese—the history of
her own love-story, thinly disguised by its title—had appeared.
In 1860 she issued a collected edition of her poems under the title,
Poems before Congress. Soon thereafter her health underwent a change
for the worse; she gradually lost strength, and died on June 29, 1861.
She is buried in Florence in the English Cemetery, Florence.
Browning is generally considered the greatest of English poetesses.
Her works are full of tender and delicate, but also of strong and deep,
thought. Her own sufferings, combined with her moral and intellectual
strength, made her the champion of the suffering and oppressed wherever
she found them. Her gift was essentially lyrical, though much of her
work was not so in form. Her weak points are the lack of compression,
an occasional somewhat obtrusive mannerism, and frequent failure both
in metre and rhyme. Though not nearly the equal of her husband in force
of intellect and the higher qualities of the poet, her works had, as
might be expected on a comparison of their respective subjects and styles,
a much earlier and wider acceptance with the general public. Mrs. Browning
was a woman of singular nobility and charm, and though not beautiful,
was remarkably attractive. Mary Russell Mitford thus describes her as
a young woman: "A slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark
curls falling on each side of a most expressive face; large, tender
eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, and a smile like a sunbeam."
Anne Thackeray Ritchie described her as: "Very small and brown"
with big, exotic eyes and an overgenerous mouth.
Her most famous
work is Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of love sonnets written
by Browning but disguised as a translation. By far the most famous poem
from this collection, with one of the most famous opening lines in the
English language, is number 43:
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.
But while her Petrarchan
Sonnets from the Portughese are exquisite, she was also a prophetic,
indeed epic, poet, writing Casa Guidi Windows in support of Italy's
Risorgimento, as had Byron supported Greece's liberation from Turkey,
and writing Aurora Leigh, in nine books, the woman's number, following
the death of Margaret Fuller by drowning in the ship 'Elizabeth', in
which Aurora mirrors Margaret and Marian Erle, herself. She sets Aurora
Leigh in Florence, England and Paris, using in it her knowledge from
childhood of the Bible in Hebrew, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Apuleius,
Dante, Langland, Madame de Stael, and George Sand.
The government of
Italy and the Comune of Florence celebrated her poetry with commemorative
plaques on Casa Guidi, where the Brownings had lived during their 15
year marriage. Lord Leighton designed her tomb in the English Cemetery,
its sculpting in Carrara marble being carried out, not faithfully, by
Francesco Giovannozzo. In 2006 the Comune of Florence lays a laurel
wreath on this tomb to commemorate the 200 years since her birth.
Moulton-Barrett was born March 6, 1806 in Durham, England. Her father,
Edward Moulton-Barrett, made most of his considerable fortune from Jamaican
sugar plantations, and in 1809 he bought Hope End, a 500-acre estate
near the Malvern Hills. Elizabeth lived a privileged childhood, riding
her pony around the grounds, visiting other families in the neighborhood,
and arranging family theatrical productions with her eleven brothers
and sisters. Although frail, she apparently had no health problems until
1821, when Dr. Coker prescribed opium for a nervous disorder. Her mother
died when she was 22, and critics mark signs of this loss in Aurora
Elizabeth, an accomplished
child, had read a number of Shakespearian plays, parts of Pope's Homeric
translations, passages from Paradise Lost, and the histories of England,
Greece, and Rome before the age of ten. She was self-taught in almost
every respect. During her teen years she read the principal Greek and
Latin authors and Dante's Inferno--all texts in the original languages.
Her voracious appetite for knowledge compelled her to learn enough Hebrew
to read the Old Testament from beginning to end. Her enjoyment of the
works and subject matter of Paine, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Wollstonecraft
was later expressed by her concern for human rights in her own letters
and poems. By the age of twelve she had written an "epic"
poem consisting of four books of rhyming couplets. Barrett later referred
to her first literary attempt as, "Pope's Homer done over again,
or rather undone."
In her early twenties
Barrett befriended Hugh Stuart Boyd, a blind, middle-aged scholar, who
rekindled Barrett's interest in Greek studies. During their friendship
Barrett absorbed an astonishing amount of Greek literature -- Homer,
Pindar, Aristophanes, etc.--but after a few years Barrett's fondness
for Boyd diminished.
fascination with the classics and metaphysics was balanced by a religious
obsession which she later described as "not the deep persuasion
of the mild Christian but the wild visions of an enthusiast." (See
Methodism for the connotations of "enthusiasm.") Her family
attended services at the nearest Dissenting chapel, and Mr. Barrett
was active in Bible and Missionary societies.
From 1822 on, Elizabeth
Barrett's interests tended more and more to the scholarly and literary.
Mr. Barrett's financial losses in the early 30s forced him to sell Hope
End, and although never poor, the family moved three times between 1832
and 1837, settling at 50 Wimpole Street in London. In 1838, The Seraphim
and Other Poems appeared, the first volume of Elizabeth's mature poetry
to appear under her own name. That same year her health forced her to
move to Torquay, on the Devonshire coast. Her favorite brother Edward
went along with her; his death by drowning later that year was a blow
which prostrated her for months and from which she never fully recovered.
When she returned to Wimpole Street, she became an invalid and a recluse,
spending most of the next five years in her bedroom, seeing only one
or two people other than her immediate family.
One of those people
was John Kenyon, a wealthy and convivial friend of the arts. Her 1844
Poems made her one of the most popular writers in the land, and inspired
Robert Browning to write her, telling her how much he loved her poems.
Kenyon arranged for Browning to come see her in May 1845, and so began
one of the most famous courtships in literature. Six years his elder
and an invalid, she could not believe that the vigorous and worldly
Browning really loved her as much as he professed to, and her doubts
are expressed in the Sonnets from the Portuguese which she wrote over
the next two years. Love conquered all, however, and Browning imitated
his hero Shelley by spiriting his beloved off to Italy in August 1846.
Since they were proper Victorians, however, they got married a week
Mr. Barrett disinherited
her (as he did each one of his children who got married without his
permission, and he never gave his permission). Unlike her brothers and
sisters, Elizabeth had inherited some money of her own, so the Brownings
were reasonably comfortable in Italy. In 1849, they had a son, Robert
Wiedeman Barrett Browning.
At her husband's
insistence, the second edition of her Poems included her love sonnets.
They helped increase her popularity and the high critical regard in
which the Victorians held their favorite poetess. (On Wordsworth's death
in 1850, she was seriously considered for the Laureateship, which went
to Tennyson.) Her growing interest in the Italian struggle for independence
is evident in Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860).
1857 saw the publication of the verse-novel Aurora Leigh,
It is still unclear
what sort of affliction Elizabeth Barrett Browning had, although medical
and literary scholars have enjoyed speculating. Whatever it was, the
opium which was repeatedly prescribed probably made it worse; and Browning
almost certainly lengthened her life by taking her south and by his
solicitous attention. She died in his arms on June 29, 1861.
No female poet was
held in higher esteem among cultured readers in both the United States
and England than Elizabeth Barrett Browning during the nineteenth century.
Barrett's poetry had an immense impact on the works of Emily Dickinson
who admired her as woman of achievement.
of social injustice (the slave trade in America, the oppression of the
Italians by the Austrians, the labor of children in the mines and the
mills of England, and the restrictions placed upon women) is manifested
in many of her poems. Two of her poems, Casa Guidi Windows and Poems
Before Congress, dealt directly with the Italian fight for independence.
The first half of Casa Guidi Windows (1851) was filled with hope that
the newly awakened liberal movements were moving toward unification
and freedom in the Italian states. The second half of the poem, written
after the movement of liberalism had been crushed in Italy, is dominated
by her disillusionment. After a decade of truce, Italians once again
began to struggle for their freedom, but were forced to agree to an
armistice that would leave Venice under Austrian control. Barrett Browning's
Poems Before Congress (1860) responded to these events by criticizing
the English government for not providing aid. One of the poems in this
collection, "A Curse For a Nation," which attacked slavery,
had been previously published in an abolitionist journal in Boston.
Aurora Leigh also
dealt with social injustice, but its subject was the subjugation of
women to the dominating male. It also commented on the role of a woman
as a woman and poet. Barrett's popularity waned after her death, and
late-Victorian critics argued that although much of her writing would
be forgotten, she would be remembered for "The Cry of the Children",
"Isobel's Child", "Bertha in the Lane", and most
of all the Sonnets from the Portuguese. Virginia Woolf argued that Aurora
Leigh's heroine, "with her passionate interest in the social questions,
her conflict as artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom,
is the true daughter of her age." Woolf's praise of that work predated
the modern critical reevaluation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and
today it attracts more attention than the rest of her poetry.
From Birth to Death:
The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Throughout the course
of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life, poetry played the hand of
fate. All of the major events that took place in her life seem to coincide
with her poetry. Poetry made her famous. It gave her solace, and comfort,
somewhere to drown her sorrow. It introduced her to her husband, and
(indirectly) divorced her from her father. Poetry was not only a part
of her life, but an integral part of her soul.
It all began in
Gosforth Church, with the marriage of Mary Graham Clarke, and Robert
Moulton. Soon after their marriage, Edward Moulton inherited his family’s
sugar plantations in Jamaica, and took on the name Barrett. Their first
daughter was born on March 6, 1806 in Coxhoe Hall, located in Durham,
England. She was christened Elizabeth Barrett. She was to be the first
of twelve siblings: Edward, Henrietta, Arabella, Samuel, Charles, George,
Henry, Alfred, Septimus, Octavius, and Mary. (Mary died at the age of
three.) Out of the twelve, Elizabeth Barrett was closest to her younger
brother Edward, affectionately dubbing him “bro.” He in
turn, responded by calling her “ba.” They all resided happily
at “Hope End near Ledbury in Herefordshire, where Edward Barrett
had built himself a country house with Moorish windows and turrets”
(World Authors 77).
education began at the age of eight when she first started receiving
lessons from her tutor. It soon became obvious that Barrett was a proficient
learner. She could read Homer in the original before she turned nine
years old, and when she no longer had a tutor, she taught herself by
studying Edward’s lessons, and by reading incessantly. But, more
importantly, she developed a passion not only for learning, but for
poetry as well. There is speculation that she began writing poetry at
a very early age, but one of the first documentations of her work is
Battle of Marathon, an epic poem contained in four books, written when
she was twelve. Her father published it privately in 1820. She also
began keeping a diary around the age of twelve, entitled “Memorandum
Book Containing Day and Night thoughts of Elizabeth Barrett”.
It is composed of around one thousand words and “. . . it ranges
in subjects discussed from the doctrine of innate ideas to the writer’s
own character. To read the diary is to see that at the age of twelve
she had already developed the intensity that distinguished her mature
style” (Radley 15). Her childhood diary is presently kept in the
rare books room in Wellesley College.
A Tragic Flaw
As stated by Elizabeth
Barrett’s own hand, quoted from her diary, “. . .I am very
passionate but impatience is my ruling passion. I can confess without
shame and I am willing to repent and I can forgive without malice but
impatience leads me into more faults that I can repent . . .”
Elizabeth was a
relatively healthy girl until 1815. Her tragic flaw came into play when
she grew impatient as she was waiting for someone to assist her in saddling
her pony. While trying to saddle the pony, she fell backward, with the
saddle landing on top of her. This event changed the rest of her life.
For a long time, she was expected to stay bedridden after she was diagnosed
with disease of the spine. This was the first of many illnesses that
would plague her for the rest of her days.
In 1821, Barrett
developed a respiratory infection that was suspiciously similar to tuberculosis.
In letters to a friend, Miss Mitford, she described her illness as continuous
coughing and spitting up blood. In the early stages of the disease,
she was diagnosed with a nervous disorder by Doctor Coker. he prescribed
opium for her; this was an addiction she could not escape; for the rest
of her life she was a habitual user. In 1822, she began to work on An
Essay on Mind and Other Poems, which was published in 1826. In 1825,
“The Rose and Zephhyr” was published by the Literary Gazette.
This was a turning point, because this was her first poem that was not
published privately by her father. Barrett’s literary career was
in its infancy.
The End of Hope
In 1827, things
took a turn for the worst. The sugar plantations in Jamaica were beginning
to fail, and then, in 1828, Mary Barrett died, leaving behind eleven
children and a grief stricken husband who had ran their debts higher
to keep his ailing wife comfortable. After she died, Mr. Barrett lost
a substantial amount of money on his sugar plantations due to mismanagement
and unrest amongst the slaves. The Barrett family never suffered major
financial hardship, but Mr. Barrett sold hope End in 1832. From there,
they moved to Sidmouth, and from Sidmouth they moved to 74 Gloucester
Place, (It is now 95 Gloucester Place), and finally, they settled at
50 Wimpole Street. One bright point in Elizabeth Barrett’s life
during 1827 to 1832 was the fact that she met Hugh Stuart Boyd, a blind
scholar who encouraged her in classical studies. In 1833, Prometheus
Bound and Miscellaneous Poems was published.
In 1838, Elizabeth
Barrett’s health took a turn for the worst. It is speculated that
“she might have had spinal disease, Potts disease, or tuberculosis
of the spine; her prolonged cough also might have been pulmonary tuberculosis”
(Pickering 77). In August, Barrett went to Torqauy in hopes that her
health would return. She also begged her father to allow Edward to stay
with her. This was a decision that she bitterly regretted later. He
drown two years later in Babbacombe Bay. Barrett never forgave herself
for pleading with her father to allow him to stay with her. Barrett
returned to 50 Wimpole Street in 1841, and her dependency on her father
A Tyrannical Patriarch
After her mother’s
death back in 1828, Mr. Barrett became even more domineering, and tyrant-like.
None of his ten remaining children were permitted to marry, and even
after the children were well into their twenties, they still had to
ask for his approval and permission to have dinner guests.
Barrett went back to Wimpole street, she lived as a recluse, lying alone
in her room, only seeing her family and a select few friends. Barrett
now took solace in reading and writing poems.
Geraldine’s Courtship" was significant because it introduced
her to her husband, Robert Browning. She addressed his work in Lady
Geraldine’s Courtship with the following: “.
. .Howitt’s ballad verse or Tennyson’s enchanted reverie
or from Robert Browning some pomegranate, which if out deep down the
middle shows a heart within blood tinctured, of a veined humanity.”
Browning in turn
read "Lady Geraldine’s Courtship," and desperately wanted
to meet the poetess whose verses struck a chord in his heart. She was
an invalid, a recluse, and six years older than he, and yet he fell
in love with her long before he laid eyes on her. A man by the name
of John Kenyon arranged the meeting and Mr. Barrett allowed the meeting
to take place because he thought of Robert Browning as an admirer of
his daughter’s literary work.
his love to Barrett soon after they met. “The letter that began
the most famous courtship of the nineteenth century opened, ‘I
love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett’’’
(Markus 3). 574 letters were exchanged in their twenty month courtship.
As their love grew, so did Mr. Barrett’s tyranny over his daughter.
“He [simply] had one stipulation, as ironclad as it was spoken:
None of them male or female were all allowed to marry. The three who
did disobey in his lifetime were disinherited . . . to him they were
dead” (Markus 5). Elizabeth Barrett was one of the three, and,
true to his word, they never reconciled. On September 12, 1846 Elizabeth
Barrett became Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the beloved wife of Robert
Browning. After their marriage, Browning spirited his bride off to Italy
where they traveled from Pisa to Rome to Florence. Finally, the Barretts
settled in Florence. Their first and only child, Robert Wideman Barrett
Browning was born in March of 1849. “Italy was a sense of release
for Elizabeth. . . .life was rich and full, and Italy became a place
of enlightenment, beauty and strength, whereas England represented sorrow
and depression. . . . Elizabeth found interests that she never would
have enjoyed had she stayed at the Wimpole address. By far, her most
consuming interests were Italian politics and the area of spiritualism
” ( Radley 24 ). It was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most
fervent desire to see Italy unified, and hence, Poems Before Congress
came out in 1860.
Four years after
the death of her father in 1857, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s
health failed her for the last time. She died on June 29, 1861 in the
arms of her husband. Her last words were “It is beautiful.”
She took her last breath, and left the world, leaving behind not only
a husband and a son, but a legacy of beloved poetry that will never