Elizabeth Barrett Browning (née Moulton-Barrett, 6 March 1806 – 29 June 1861) was one of the most prominent English poets of the Victorian era, popular in Britain and the United States during her lifetime.
Born in County Durham, the eldest of 12 children, Elizabeth Barrett wrote poetry from about the age of six. Her mother’s collection of her poems forms one of the largest collections extant of juvenilia by any English writer. At 15 she became ill, suffering intense head and spinal pain for the rest of her life. Later in life she also developed lung problems, possibly tuberculosis. She took laudanum for the pain from an early age, which is likely to have contributed to her frail health.
In the 1830s Elizabeth was introduced to literary society through her cousin, John Kenyon. Her first adult collection of poems was published in 1838 and she wrote prolifically between 1841 and 1844, producing poetry, translation and prose. She campaigned for the abolition of slavery and her work helped influence reform in the child labour legislation. Her prolific output made her a rival to Tennyson as a candidate for poet laureate on the death of Wordsworth.
Elizabeth’s volume Poems (1844) brought her great success, attracting the admiration of the writer Robert Browning. Their correspondence, courtship and marriage were carried out in secret, for fear of her father’s disapproval. Following the wedding she was indeed disinherited by her father. The couple moved to Italy in 1846, where she would live for the rest of her life. They had one son, Robert Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. She died in Florence in 1861. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband shortly after her death.
Elizabeth’s work had a major influence on prominent writers of the day, including the American poets Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. She is remembered for such poems as “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43, 1845) and Aurora Leigh (1856).
- 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 candlelight.
- 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.
Some of Elizabeth Barrett’s family had lived in Jamaica since 1655. Their wealth derived mainly from Edward Barrett (1734–1798), owner of 10,000 acres (4,000 ha) in the estates of Cinnamon Hill, Cornwall, Cambridge and Oxford in northern Jamaica. Elizabeth’s maternal grandfather owned sugar plantations, mills, glassworks and ships that traded between Jamaica and Newcastle. Biographer Julia Markus states the poet “believed that she had African blood through her grandfather Charles Moulton”, but there is no evidence of this – although other branches of her family had African blood through relationships between plantation owners and slaves. What the family believed to be their genealogy in relation to Jamaica is unclear.
The family wished to hand down their name, stipulating that Barrett should always be held as a surname. In some cases inheritance was given on condition that the name was used by the beneficiary; the English gentry and “squirearchy” had long encouraged this sort of name changing. Given this strong tradition, Elizabeth used “Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett” on legal documents and before she was married often signed herself ‘Elizabeth Barrett Barrett’ or ‘EBB’ (initials which she was able to keep after her wedding).
Elizabeth’s father chose to raise his family in England while his business enterprises remained in Jamaica. The fortune of Elizabeth’s mother’s line, the Graham Clarke family, also derived in part from slave labour, and was 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 12 children (eight boys and four girls). All lived to adulthood except for one girl, who died at the age of three, when Elizabeth was eight.
The children all had nicknames: Elizabeth was “Ba”. She rode her pony, went for family walks and picnics, socialised with other county families, and participated in home theatrical productions. But unlike her siblings, she immersed herself in books as often as she could get away from the social rituals of her family.
She was baptized in 1809 at Kelloe parish church, although she had already been baptised by a family friend in her first week of life.
In 1809, the family moved to Hope End, a 500-acre (200 ha) estate near the Malvern Hills in Ledbury, Herefordshire. Her father converted the Georgian house into stables and built a new mansion of opulent Turkish design, which his wife described as something from the Arabian Nights Entertainments.
The interior’s brass balustrades, mahogany doors inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and finely carved fireplaces were eventually complemented by lavish landscaping: ponds, grottos, kiosks, an ice house, a hothouse, and a subterranean passage from house to gardens. Her time at Hope End would inspire her in later life to write her most ambitious work, Aurora Leigh (1856), which went through over twenty editions by 1900, but none between 1905 and 1978.
She was educated at home and tutored by Daniel McSwiney with her oldest brother. She began writing verses at the age of four. During the Hope End period, she was an intensely studious, precocious child. She claimed that at the age of six she was reading novels, at eight entranced by Pope’s translations of Homer, studying Greek at ten, and at twelve writing her own Homeric epic, The Battle of Marathon: A Poem.
In 1820 Mr Barrett privately published The Battle of Marathon, an epic-style poem, though all copies remained within the family. Her mother compiled 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.
Mary Russell Mitford described the young Elizabeth 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.”
At about this time, Elizabeth began to battle with 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. Various biographies link this to a riding accident at the time (she fell while trying to dismount a horse), but there is no evidence to support the link. Sent to recover at the Gloucester spa, she was treated — in the absence of symptoms supporting another diagnosis — for a spinal problem. Though this illness continued for the rest of her life, it is believed to be unrelated to the lung disease which she developed in 1837.
She began to take opiates for the pain, laudanum (an opium concoction) followed by morphine, then commonly prescribed. She would become dependent on them for much of her adulthood; the use from an early age may well have contributed to her frail health. Biographers such as Alethea Hayter have suggested this may also have contributed to the wild vividness of her imagination and the poetry that it produced.
By 1821 she had read Mary Wollstonecraft‘s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and become a passionate supporter of Wollstonecraft’s ideas. 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’s mother died in 1828, and is buried at St Michael’s Church, Ledbury, next to her daughter Mary. Sarah Graham-Clarke, Elizabeth’s aunt, helped to care for the children, and she had clashes with Elizabeth’s strong will. In 1831 Elizabeth’s grandmother, Elizabeth Moulton, died.
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 was 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.
Between 1833 and 1835, she was living, with her family, at Belle Vue in Sidmouth. The site has now been renamed Cedar Shade and redeveloped. A blue plaque at the entrance to the site attests to this.
In 1838, some years after the sale of Hope End, the family settled at 50 Wimpole Street.
During 1837–38 the poet was struck with illness again, with symptoms today suggesting tuberculous ulceration of the lungs. That same year, at her physician’s insistence, she 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. Then her favourite brother Edward (“Bro”) was drowned in a sailing accident in Torquay in July. This had a serious effect on her already fragile health. She felt guilty as her father had disapproved of Edward’s trip to Torquay. 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. Her health began to improve, though she saw few people other than her immediate family. One of those was Kenyon, a wealthy friend of the family and patron of the arts. She received comfort from a spaniel named Flush, 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 and 1844 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 raising support for Lord Shaftesbury’s Ten Hours Bill (1844). At about the same time, she contributed 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, Barrett Browning 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 as a candidate for poet laureate in 1850 on the death of Wordsworth.
Her 1844 volume Poems made her one of the most popular writers in the country, and inspired Robert Browning to write to her. He 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 Browning to meet Elizabeth on 20 May 1845, in her rooms, and so began one of the most famous courtships in literature. Elizabeth had already produced a large amount of work, but Browning had a great influence on her subsequent writing, as did she on his: two of Barrett’s most famous pieces were written after she met Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh. Robert’s Men and Women is also a product of that time.
Some critics state that her activity was, in some ways, in decay before she met Browning: “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.”
The courtship and marriage between Robert Browning and Elizabeth were carried out secretly, as she knew her father would disapprove. After a private marriage at St Marylebone Parish Church, they honeymooned in Paris before moving to Italy, in September 1846, which became their 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 had not anticipated her brothers’ rejection. As Elizabeth had some money of her own, the couple were reasonably comfortable in Italy. The Brownings were well respected, and even famous. Elizabeth grew stronger and in 1849, at the age of 43, between four miscarriages, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. Their son later married, but had no legitimate children.
At her husband’s insistence, Elizabeth’s second edition of Poems included her love sonnets; as a result, her popularity increased (as well as critical regard), and her artistic position was confirmed.
The couple came to know a wide circle of artists and writers including 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. Among her intimate friends in Florence was the writer Isa Blagden, whom she encouraged to write novels. They met Alfred Tennyson in Paris, and John Forster, Samuel Rogers and the Carlyles in London, later befriending Charles Kingsley and John Ruskin.
After the death of an old friend, G. B. Hunter, and then of her father, Barrett Browning’s health started to deteriorate. The Brownings moved from Florence to Siena, residing at the Villa Alberti. 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 the conservative magazines Blackwood’s and the Saturday Review labelled her a fanatic. She dedicated this book to her husband. Her last work was A Musical Instrument, published posthumously.
Barrett Browning’s sister Henrietta died in November 1860. The couple spent the winter of 1860–61 in Rome where Barrett Browning’s health further deteriorated and they returned to Florence in early June 1861. 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 area around Casa Guidi were closed, while Elizabeth was mourned with unusual demonstrations.” The nature of her illness is still unclear. Some modern scientists speculate her illness may have been hypokalemic periodic paralysis, a genetic disorder that causes weakness and many of the other symptoms she described.
Barrett Browning was widely popular in the United Kingdom and America during her lifetime. Edgar Allan Poe was inspired by her poem Lady Geraldine’s Courtship and specifically borrowed the poem’s metre for his poem The Raven. Poe had reviewed Barrett Browning’s work in the January 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, saying 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”.
Barrett Browning’s 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.
Lilian Whiting published a biography of Barrett Browning (1899) which 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, as 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 Elizabeth 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.