Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian era. Her poetry was widely popular in both England and the United States during her lifetime. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband, Robert Browning, shortly after her death.
Some of Barrett's family had lived in Jamaica for several centuries. The main wealth of Barrett's household derived from Edward Barrett (1734–1798), landowner of 10,000 acres (40 km2) in Cinnamon Hill, Cornwall, Cambridge, and Oxford estates in northern Jamaica. Barrett Browning's maternal grandfather owned sugar plantations, mills, glassworks and ships that traded between Jamaica and Newcastle. Biographer Julia Markus stated that the poet ‘believed that she had African blood through her grandfather Charles Moulton’. There is no evidence to suggest her line of the Barrett family had any African ancestry, although other branches did, through the children of plantation owners and slaves. What the family believed to be their genealogy over several hundred years in the West Indies, is unclear.
The family wished to hand down their name as well as their wealth, stipulating that Barrett should be held as a surname. In some cases inheritance was given on the prerequisite that the name Barrett had to be used by the beneficiary. Given the strong tradition, Elizabeth used 'Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett' on legal documents and before she was married often signed herself as 'Elizabeth Barrett Barrett', or ‘EBB’ (initials she was able to keep after her wedding). Elizabeth's father chose to raise his family in England while his fortune grew in Jamaica. The Graham Clarke family wealth, also derived in part from slave labour, was also considerable.
Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett was born on 6 March 1806, in Coxhoe Hall, between the villages of Coxhoe and Kelloe in County Durham, England. Her parents were Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke; Elizabeth was the eldest of their 12 children (eight boys and four girls). All the children lived to adulthood except for one girl, who died at the age of three when Elizabeth was eight. The children in her family all had nicknames: Elizabeth's was "Ba". Elizabeth was baptized in 1809 at Kelloe Parish Church, though she had already been baptized by a family friend in the first week after she was born. Later that year, after the fifth child, Henrietta, was born, their father bought Hope End, a 500-acre (2.0 km2) estate near the Malvern Hills in Ledbury, Herefordshire, where Elizabeth spent her childhood. Her time at Hope End would inspire her in later life to write Aurora Leigh.
She was educated at home and attended lessons with her brothers' tutor. During the Hope End period, she was an intensely studious, precocious child. She writes that at six she was reading novels, at eight she was entranced by Pope's translations of Homer, studying Greek at ten and writing her own Homeric epic The Battle of Marathon. Her mother compiled early efforts of the child's poetry into collections of "Poems by Elizabeth B. Barrett". Her father called her the 'Poet Laureate of Hope End’ and encouraged her work. The result is one of the largest collections of juvenilia of any English writer.
On her 14th birthday her father gave the gift of 50 printed copies of the epic. She went on to delight in reading Virgil in the original Latin, Shakespeare and Milton. By 1821 she had read Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and she became a passionate supporter of Wollstonecraft's ideas. She watched her brothers go off to school knowing that there was no chance of that education for herself. The child's intellectual fascination with the classics and metaphysics was reflected in a religious intensity which she later described as "not the deep persuasion of the mild Christian but the wild visions of an enthusiast". The Barretts attended services at the nearest Dissenting chapel, and Edward was active in Bible and Missionary societies.
Elizabeth was very close to her siblings and had great respect for her father: she claimed that life was no fun without him, and her mother agreed.
Barrett Browning's first known poem was written at the age of six or eight, "On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man". The manuscript is currently in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library; the exact date is controversial because the "2" in the date 1812 is written over something else that is scratched out. Her first independent publication was "Stanzas Excited by Reflections on the Present State of Greece" in The New Monthly Magazine of May 1821; this was followed in the same publication two months later by "Thoughts Awakened by Contemplating a Piece of the Palm which Grows on the Summit of the Acropolis at Athens".
Her first collection of poems, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, was published in 1826 and reflected her passion for Byron and Greek politics. Its publication drew the attention of a blind scholar of the Greek language, Hugh Stuart Boyd, and that of another Greek scholar, Uvedale Price, with whom she maintained a sustained scholarly correspondence.
Among other neighbours was Mrs. James Martin from Colwall, with whom she also corresponded throughout her life. Later, at Boyd's suggestion, she translated Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound (published in 1833; retranslated in 1850). During their friendship Barrett studied Greek literature, including Homer, Pindar and Aristophanes.
At about age 15 Barrett Browning began to battle with a lifelong illness, which the medical science of the time was unable to diagnose. All three sisters came down with the syndrome although it lasted only with Elizabeth. She had intense head and spinal pain with loss of mobility. Apocryphally it was told that she fell while trying to saddle a horse or was creating the illness but there is strong evidence that she was seriously sick. The illnesses of this time were, however, unrelated to the lung disease she suffered in 1837. This illness caused her to be frail and weak.
Mary Russell Mitford described the young Barrett Browning at this time, as having "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". She began to take opiates for the pain, Laudanum (and opium concoction) then morphine, commonly prescribed at the time. She would become dependent on them for much of her adulthood; the use from an early age would have contributed to her frail health. Biographers such as Alethea Hayter have suggested that this may have contributed to the wild vividness of her imagination and the poetry it produced.
In 1828, Barrett Browning’s mother died. She wrote "scarcely I was a woman when I lost my mother". She is buried at the Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels in Ledbury, next to her daughter Mary. Sarah Graham-Clarke, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's aunt, helped to care of the children and was known to clash with the strong will of Elizabeth. In 1831 Barrett Browning's grandmother, Elizabeth Moulton, died. The family moved three times between 1832 and 1837, first to a white Georgian building in Sidmouth, Devonshire, where they remained for three years. Later they moved on to Gloucester Place in London.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning opposed slavery and published two poems highlighting the barbarity of slavers and her support for the abolitionist cause. The poems opposing slavery include "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" and "A Curse for a Nation"; in the first she describes the experience of a slave woman who is whipped, raped, and made pregnant as she curses the slavers. She declared herself glad that the slaves were "virtually free" when the Emancipation Act abolishing slavery in British colonies was passed in 1833, despite the fact that her father believed that Abolitionism would ruin his business.
The date of publication of these poems is in dispute but her position on slavery in the poems is clear and may have led to a rift between Elizabeth and her father. She wrote to John Ruskin in 1855 "I belong to a family of West Indian slaveholders, and if I believed in curses, I should be afraid". After the Jamaican slave uprising of 1831–2 her father and uncle continued to treat the slaves humanely but the family became mired in thirty-eight years of chancery litigation over the division of land and other property. Following lawsuits and the abolition of slavery Mr. Barrett incurred great financial and investment losses that forced him to sell Hope End.
Although the family were never poor, the place was seized and put up for sale to satisfy creditors. Always secret in his financial dealings, he would not discuss his situation and the family was haunted by the idea that they might have to move to Jamaica. In 1838, some years after the sale of Hope End the family settled at 50 Wimpole Street.
In London John Kenyon, a distant cousin, introduced her to literary figures including William Wordsworth, Mary Russell Mitford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle. Barrett Browning continued to write, contributing "The Romaunt of Margaret", "The Romaunt of the Page", "The Poet's Vow", and other pieces to various periodicals.
She corresponded with other writers, including Mary Russell Mitford, who would become a close friend and support Barrett Browning in furthering her literary ambitions. In 1838 The Seraphim and Other Poems appeared, the first volume of Elizabeth's mature poetry to appear under her own name. During 1837–8 the poet was struck with illness again, with symptoms today suggesting tuberculous ulceration of the lungs. In 1838, at her physician's insistence, Barrett Browning moved from London to Torquay, on the Devonshire coast. Two tragedies then struck: in February 1840 her brother Samuel died of a fever in Jamaica and her brother Edward ('Bro'), with whom she was very close, went with her to Torquay and was drowned in a sailing accident in July.
This had a serious effect on her already fragile health; when they found his body after a couple of days, she had no strength for tears or words. She felt guilty as her father had disapproved of Edward's trip to Torquay but did not hinder the visit. She wrote to Mitford "That was a very near escape from madness, absolute hopeless madness". The family returned to Wimpole Street in 1841.
At Wimpole Street Barrett Browning spent most of her time in her upstairs room, and her health began to recover, though she saw few people other than her immediate family. One of those she did see was Kenyon, a wealthy friend of the family and patron of the arts. She received comfort from her spaniel named “Flush”, which had been a gift from Mary Mitford. (Virginia Woolf later fictionalised the life of the dog, making him the protagonist of her 1933 novel Flush: A Biography).
Between 1841–4 Barrett Browning was prolific in poetry, translation and prose. The poem "The Cry of the Children", published in 1842 in Blackwoods, condemned child labour and helped bring about child labour reforms by rousing support for Lord Shaftesbury's Ten Hours Bill (1844). At about the same time, she contributed some critical prose pieces to Richard Henry Horne's A New Spirit of the Age. In 1844 she published two volumes of Poems, which included "A Drama of Exile", "A Vision of Poets", and "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" and two substantial critical essays for 1842 issues of The Athenaeum. “Since she was not burdened with any domestic duties expected of her sisters, Elizabeth could now devote herself entirely to the life of the mind, cultivating an enormous correspondence, reading widely”. Her prolific output made her a rival to Tennyson's as a candidate for poet laureate in 1850 on the death of Wordsworth.
Robert Browning and Italy
Her 1844 volume Poems made her one of the most popular writers in the country at the time and inspired Robert Browning to write to her, telling her how much he loved her work. He had been an admirer of her poetry for a long time and wrote "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett" praising their "fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought". Kenyon arranged for Robert Browning to meet Elizabeth on 20 May 1845, in her rooms, and so began one of the most famous courtships in literature. Elizabeth had produced a large amount of work and had been writing long before Robert Browning had.
However, he had a great influence on her writing, as did she on his: two of Barrett’s most famous pieces were produced after she met Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh. Robert's Men and Women is a product of that time. Some critics, however, point to him as an undermining influence: "Until her relationship with Robert Browning began in 1845, Barrett’s willingness to engage in public discourse about social issues and about aesthetic issues in poetry, which had been so strong in her youth, gradually diminished, as did her physical health. As an intellectual presence and a physical being, she was becoming a shadow of herself". Her doctors strongly encouraged her to go to the warmer climates of Italy to avoid another English winter, but her father would not hear of it.
"Portuguese" was a pet name Browning used. Sonnets from the Portuguese also refers to the series of sonnets of the 16th-century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões; in all these poems she used rhyme schemes typical of the Portuguese sonnets. The verse-novel Aurora Leigh, her most ambitious and perhaps the most popular of her longer poems, appeared in 1856. It is the story of a female writer making her way in life, balancing work and love. The writings depicted in this novel are based on similar, personal experiences that Elizabeth suffered through herself. The North American Review praised Elizabeth’s poem in these words: "Mrs. Browning’s poems are, in all respects, the utterance of a woman—of a woman of great learning, rich experience, and powerful genius, uniting to her woman’s nature the strength which is sometimes thought peculiar to a man".
The courtship and marriage between Robert Browning and Elizabeth were carried out secretly as she and her siblings were convinced their father would disapprove. Six years his elder and an invalid, she could not believe that the vigorous and worldly Robert Browning really loved her as much as he professed to. After a private marriage at St. Marylebone Parish Church, they honeymooned in Paris. Browning then imitated his hero Shelley by spiriting his wife off to Italy, in September 1846, which became her home almost continuously until her death. Elizabeth's loyal nurse, Wilson, who witnessed the marriage, accompanied the couple to Italy.
Mr. Barrett disinherited Elizabeth, as he did each of his children who married. Elizabeth had foreseen her father's anger but not expected the disgust of her brothers, who saw Browning as a lower-class gold-digger and refused to see him.
As Elizabeth had some money of her own, the couple were reasonably comfortable in Italy, and their relationship together was harmonious. The Brownings were well respected in Italy, and even famous. Elizabeth grew stronger and in 1849, at the age of 43, between four miscarriages, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. Their son later married but had no legitimate children. At her husband's insistence, the second edition of Elizabeth’s Poems included her love sonnets; as a result, her popularity increased (as well as critical regard), and her position was confirmed.
The couple came to know a wide circle of artists and writers including, in Italy, William Makepeace Thackeray, sculptor Harriet Hosmer (who, she wrote, seemed to be the "perfectly emancipated female") and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1849 she met Margaret Fuller and the female French novelist George Sand in 1852, whom she had long admired. They met with Lord Tennyson in Paris, and John Forster, Samuel Rogers, and the Carlyles in London, later befriending Charles Kingsley and John Ruskin.
At the death of an old friend, G.B. Hunter, and then of her father, her health faded again, centering around deteriorating lung function. She was moved from Florence to Siena, residing at the Villa Alberti. Deeply engrossed in Italian politics, she issued a small volume of political poems titled Poems before Congress (1860) “most of which were written to express her sympathy with the Italian cause after the outbreak of fighting in 1859”. They caused a furore in England and she was labelled as a fanatic by conservative magazines Blackwood's and the Saturday Review. She dedicated this book to her husband. Her last work was A Musical Instrument, published posthumously.
In 1860 they returned to Rome, only to find that Elizabeth’s sister Henrietta had died, news which made Elizabeth weak and depressed. She became gradually weaker, using morphine to ease her pain. She died on 29 June 1861 in her husband's arms. Browning said that she died "smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl's. … Her last word was—… 'Beautiful'". She was buried in the Protestant English Cemetery of Florence. “On Monday July 1 the shops in the section of the city around Casa Guidi were closed, while Elizabeth was mourned with unusual demonstrations.” The nature of her illness is still unclear, although medical and literary scholars have speculated that longstanding pulmonary problems, combined with palliative opiates, contributed to her decline.
Much of Barrett Browning’s work carries a religious theme. She had read and studied such famous literary works as Milton's Paradise Lost and Dante's Inferno. She says in her writing, "We want the sense of the saturation of Christ's blood upon the souls of our poets, that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation. Something of this has been perceived in art when its glory was at the fullest. Something of a yearning after this may be seen among the Greek Christian poets, something which would have been much with a stronger faculty". She believed that "Christ's religion is essentially poetry—poetry glorified". She explored the religious aspect in many of her poems, especially in her early work, such as the sonnets. She was interested in theological debate, had learned Hebrew and read the Hebrew Bible. The poem Aurora Leigh, for example, features religious imagery and allusion to the apocalypse.
American poet Edgar Allan Poe was inspired by Barrett Browning's poem Lady Geraldine's Courtship and specifically borrowed the poem's meter for his poem The Raven. Poe had reviewed Barrett's work in the January 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal and said that "her poetic inspiration is the highest—we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself." In return, she praised The Raven and Poe dedicated his 1845 collection The Raven and Other Poems to her, referring to her as "the noblest of her sex".
Her poetry greatly influenced Emily Dickinson, who admired her as a woman of achievement. Her popularity in the United States and Britain was further advanced by her stands against social injustice, including slavery in the United States, injustice toward Italian citizens by foreign rulers, and child labour.
In Lilian Whiting's 1899 biography of Elizabeth she describes her as "the most philosophical poet" and depicts her life as "a Gospel of applied Christianity". To Whiting, the term "art for art's sake" did not apply to Barrett Browning's work for the reason that each poem, distinctively purposeful, was borne of a more "honest vision". In this critical analysis, Whiting portrays Barrett Browning as a poet who uses knowledge of Classical literature with an "intuitive gift of spiritual divination". In Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Angela Leighton suggests that the portrayal of Barrett Browning as the "pious iconography of womanhood" has distracted us from her poetic achievements. Leighton cites the 1931 play by Rudolf Besier, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, as evidence that 20th century literary criticism of Barrett Browning's work has suffered more as a result of her popularity than poetic ineptitude. The play was popularized by actress Katharine Cornell, for whom it became a signature role. It was an enormous success, both artistically and commercially, and was revived several times and adapted twice into movies.
Throughout the 20th century, literary criticism of Barrett Browning's poetry remained sparse until her poems were discovered by the women's movement. She once described herself as being inclined to reject several women's rights principles, suggesting in letters to Mary Russell Mitford and her husband that she believed that there was an inferiority of intellect in women. In Aurora Leigh, however, she created a strong and independent woman who embraces both work and love. Leighton writes that because she participates in the literary world, where voice and diction are dominated by perceived masculine superiority, she "is defined only in mysterious opposition to everything that distinguishes the male subject who writes..." A five-volume scholarly edition of her works was published in 2010, the first in over a century.