Elizabeth Barrett Browning Biography
- Family history and upbringing
- Meeting other poets
- Health troubles
- Praise and correspondence
- Browning’s courtship
- A secret wedding
- Published poetry
- Politics and posterity
- “God took her”
- Overview of married life and poetry
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), English poet, wife of the poet Robert Browning, was born probably at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, for this was the home of her father and mother for some time after their marriage in 1805. Her baptismal register gives the date of her birth as the 6th of March 1806, and that of her christening as the 10th of February 1808. The long misunderstanding as to her age, whereby she was supposed to have been born three years later, was shared by her contemporaries and even for a time by her husband.
She was the daughter and eldest child of Edward Barrett Moulton, who added the surname of Barrett on the death of his maternal grandfather, whose estates in Jamaica he inherited. His wife was Mary Graham-Clarke, daughter of J. Graham-Clarke of Fenham Hall, Newcastle-on-Tyne. She died when her illustrious daughter was twenty-two years old.
Elizabeth’s childhood was passed in the country, chiefly at Hope End, a house bought by her father in the beautiful country in sight of the Malvern Hills. “They seem to me,” she wrote, “my native hills; for though I was born in the county of Durham, I was an infant when I went first into their neighbourhood, and lived there until I had passed twenty by several years.”
Her country poems, such as “The Lost Bower,” “Hector in the Garden,” and “The Deserted Garden,” refer to the woods and gardens of Hope End. Elizabeth Barrett was much the companion of her father, who pleased himself with printing fifty copies of what she calls her “great epic of eleven or twelve years old, in four books”—The Battle of Marathon (sent to the printer in 1819). She owns this to have been “a curious production for a child,” but disclaims for it anything more than “an imitative faculty.”
The love of Pope’s Homer, she adds, led her to the study of Greek, and of Latin as a help to Greek, “and the influence of all those tendencies is manifest so long afterwards as in my Essay on Mind [Essay on Mind and other Poems, 1826], a didactic poem written when I was seventeen or eighteen, and long repented of.” She was a keen student, and it is told of her that when her health failed she had her Greek books bound so as to look like novels, for fear her doctor should forbid her continuous study. At this time began her friendship with the blind scholar Hugh Stuart Boyd, with whom she read Greek authors, and especially the Greek Christian Fathers and Poets. To him she addressed later three of her sonnets, and he was one of her chief friends until his death in 1848.
In 1832 Mr Barrett sold his house of Hope End, and brought his family to Sidmouth, Devon, for some three years. There Elizabeth made a translation of the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus, published with some original poems (1833). After that time London became the home of the Barretts until the children married and the father died. The temporary dwelling was at 74 Gloucester Place, Portman Square, and in 1838 the lease was taken of the final house, 50 Wimpole Street.
It is in the middle of the year 1836 that Elizabeth Barrett’s active literary life began. She then made the acquaintance of R.H. Horne, afterwards famous for a time as the author of Orion, but perhaps best remembered as her correspondent (Letters to R.H. Horne, 2 vols. 1877), and this acquaintance led to the appearance of rather frequent poems by Miss Barrett in the New Monthly Magazine, edited by Bulwer (Lord Lytton), and in other magazines or annuals.
But the publication of The Seraphim and other Poems (1838) was a graver step. “My present attempt,” she writes in this year, “is actually, and will be considered by others, more a trial of strength than either of my preceding ones.” There was at that date a lull in the production of conspicuous books of poetry. Wordsworth had ceased, Browning and Tennyson had hardly begun to write their best.
Miss Barrett’s volume was well reviewed, but not popular, and no second edition was required; of the poems afterwards famous it contained three, “Cowper’s Grave,” “My Doves,” and “The Sea-Mew,” the first impassioned and the other two very quiet, which a fine taste must rank high among all her works. The Quarterly Review (September 1840), in an article on “Modern English Poetesses,” criticizes The Seraphim with Prometheus, and treats the former with respect, but does not lift the author out of the quite unequal company of Mrs Norton, “V,” and other contemporary women.
In the previous year Elizabeth had made the memorable acquaintance of Wordsworth. “No,” she writes, “I was not at all disappointed in Wordsworth, although perhaps I should not have singled him from the multitude as a great man. There is a reserve even in his countenance; … his eyes have more meekness than brilliancy; and in his slow, even articulation there is rather the solemnity and calmness of truth itself than the animation and energy of those who seek for it … He was very kind, and sate near me and talked to me as long as he was in the room, and recited a translation by Cary of a sonnet of Dante’s—and altogether it was a dream.”
With Landor, at the same date, a meeting took place that had long results. At this time, too, began another of Elizabeth’s valued friendships—that with Miss Mitford, author of Our Village and other works less well remembered. Mr John Kenyon also became at about this time a dear and intimate friend. He was a distant cousin of the Barretts, had published some verse, and was a warm and generous friend to men of letters. From the date of the birth of their child (1849) he gave the Brownings a hundred pounds a year, and when he died in 1856 he bequeathed to them eleven thousand pounds. To him a great number of Elizabeth’s letters are addressed, and to him in later years was Aurora Leigh dedicated. Elizabeth Barrett began also in London an acquaintance with Harriet Martineau.
Full of the interest of friendship and literature, the residence in London was unfavourable to Elizabeth’s health. In early girlhood she had a spinal affection, and her lungs became delicate. She broke a blood-vessel in the beginning of the Barretts’ life in town, and was thereafter an invalid—by no means entirely confined to her room, but often imprisoned there, and generally a recluse, until her marriage.
Her state was so threatening that in 1838 it was found necessary to remove her to Torquay, where she spent three years, accompanied by her brother Edward, the dearest of her eight brothers, the only one, she said many years later, who ever comprehended her, and for a time by her father and sisters.
During this time of physical suffering she underwent the greatest grief of her life by the drowning of her beloved brother, who with two friends went sailing in a small boat and was lost in Babbacombe Bay. Rumours of the foundering reached the unhappy sister, who was assured of the worst after three days, when the bodies were found. The accident of Edward Barrett’s meeting with his death through her residence at Torquay, and the minor accident of her having parted from him on the day of his death, as she said, “with pettish words,” increased her anguish of heart to horror.
A few days before she had written, “There are so many mercies close around me that God’s being seems proved to me, demonstrated to me, by His manifested love.” When the blow came, its heavy weight and closeness to her heart convinced her, she wrote, through an awful experience of suffering, of divine action. But many years later the mention of her brother’s death was intolerable to her. She had to remain for nearly a year day and night within hearing of the sea, of which the sound seemed to her the moan of a dying man.
There is here an interval of silence in the correspondence which busied her secluded life at all ages; but with an impulse of self-protection she went to work as soon as her strength sufficed. One of her tasks was a part taken in the Chaucer Modernized (1841), a work suggested by Wordsworth, to which he, Leigh Hunt, Horne and others contributed. In 1841 she returned to Wimpole Street, and in that and the following year she was at work on two series of articles on the Greek Christian poets and on the English poets, written for the Athenaeum under the editorship of Mr C.W. Dilke. In work she found some interest and even some delight: “Once I wished not to live, but the faculty of life seems to have sprung up in me again from under the crushing foot of heavy grief. Be it all as God wills.”
It is in 1842 that we notice the name of Robert Browning in her letters: “Mr Horne the poet and Mr Browning the poet were not behind in approbation,” she says in regard to her work on the poets. “Mr Browning is said to be learned in Greek, especially the dramatists.” In this year also she declares her love for Tennyson. To Kenyon she writes, “I ought to be thanking you for your great kindness about this divine Tennyson.” In 1842, moreover, she had the pleasure of a letter from Wordsworth, who had twice asked Kenyon for permission to visit her. The visit was not permitted on account of Miss Barrett’s ill-health.
Now Haydon sent her his unfinished painting of the great poet musing upon Helvellyn; she wrote her sonnet on the portrait, and Haydon sent it to Rydal Mount. Wordsworth’s commendation is rather cool. In August 1843 “The Cry of the Children” appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine, and during the year she was associated with her friend Horne in a critical work, The New Spirit of the Age, rather by advice than by direct contribution. Her two volumes of poems (1844) appeared, six years after her former book, under the title of Poems, by Elizabeth Barrett Barrett.
The warmest praises that greeted the new poems were H.F. Chorley’s in the Athenaeum, John Forster’s in the Examiner, and those conveyed in Blackwood, the Dublin Review, the New Quarterly and the Atlas. Letters came from Carlyle and others. Both he and Miss Martineau selected as their favourite poem “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” a violent piece of work.
In the beginning of the following year came the letter from a stranger that was to be so momentous to both. “I had a letter from Browning the poet last night,” she writes to her old friend Mrs Martin, “which threw me into ecstasies—Browning, the author of Paracelsus, the king of the mystics.” She is flattered, though not to “ecstasies,” at about the same time by a letter from E.A. Poe, and by the dedication to her, as “the noblest of her sex,” of his own work. “What is to be said, I wonder, when a man calls you the ‘noblest of your sex’? ‘Sir, you are the most discerning of yours.'”
America was at least as quick as England to appreciate her poetry; among other messages thence came in the spring letters from Lowell and from Mrs Sigourney. “She says that the sound of my poetry is stirring the ‘deep green forests of the New World’; which sounds pleasantly, does it not?”
Hope and love
It is in the same year that the letters first speak of the hope of a journey to Italy. The winters in London, with the imprisonment which—according to the medical practice of that day—they entailed, were lowering Elizabeth’s strength of resistance against disease. She longed for the change of light, scene, manners and language, and the longing became a hope, until her father’s prohibition put an end to it, and doomed her, as she and others thought, to death, without any perceptible reason for the denial of so reasonable a desire.
Meanwhile the friendship with Browning had become the chief thing in Elizabeth Barrett’s life. The correspondence, once begun, had not flagged. In the early summer they met. The allusion to his poetry in “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” had doubtless put an edge to his already keen wish to know her. He became her frequent visitor and kept her room fragrant with flowers. He never lagged, whether in friendship or in love.
We have the strange privilege, since the publication of the letters between the two, of following the whole course of this noble love-story from beginning to end, and day by day. Browning was six years younger than the woman he so passionately admired, and he at first believed her to be confined by some hopeless physical injury to her sofa. But of his own wish and resolution he never doubted.
Her hesitation, in her regard for his liberty and strength, to burden him with an ailing wife, she has recorded in the Sonnets afterwards published under a slight disguise as Sonnets from the Portuguese. She refused him once “with all her will, but much against her heart,” and yielded at last for his sake rather than her own.
Her father’s will was that his children should not marry, and, kind and affectionate father though he was, the prohibition took a violent form and struck terror into the hearts of the three dutiful and sensitive girls. Robert Browning’s addresses were, therefore, kept secret, for fear of scenes of anger which the most fragile of the three could not face. Browning was reluctant to practise the deception; Elizabeth alone knew how impossible it was to avoid it.
When she was persuaded to marry, it was she who insisted, in mental and physical terror, upon a secret wedding. Throughout the summer of 1846 her health improved, and on the 12th of September the two poets were married in St Marylebone parish church. Browning visited it on his subsequent journeys to England to give thanks for what had taken place at its altar.
Elizabeth’s two sisters had been permitted to know of the engagement, but not of the wedding, so that their father’s anger might not fall on them too heavily. For a week Mrs Browning remained in her father’s house. On the 19th of September she left it, taking her maid and her little dog, joined her husband, and crossed to the Continent.
She never entered that home again, nor did her father ever forgive her. Her letters, written with tears to entreat his pardon, were never answered. They were all subsequently returned to her unopened. Among them was one she had written, in the prospect of danger, before the birth of her child.
With her sisters her relations were, as before, most affectionate. Her brothers, one at least of whom disapproved of her action, held for a time aloof. All others were taken entirely by surprise. Mrs Jameson, who had been one of the few intimate visitors to Miss Barrett’s room, had offered to take her to Italy that year, but met her instead on her way thither with a newly-married husband.
Journey to Italy
The poets’ journey was full of delight. Where she could not walk, up long staircases or across the waters of the stream at Vaucluse, Browning carried her. In October they reached Pisa, and there they wintered, Mrs Jameson keeping them company for a time lest ignorance of practical things should bring them, in their poverty, to trouble. She soon found that they were both admirable economists; not that they gave time and thought to husbandry, but that they knew how to enjoy life without luxuries. So they remained to the end, frugal and content with little.
For climate and cheapness they settled in Italy, choosing Florence in the spring of 1847, and remaining there, with the interruptions of a change to places in Italy such as Siena and Rome, and to Paris and England, until Mrs Browning’s death.
It was at Pisa that Robert Browning first saw the Sonnets from the Portuguese, poems which his wife had written in secret and had no thought of publishing. He, however, resolved to give them to the world. “I dared not,” he said, “reserve to myself the finest sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare’s.” The judgment, which the existence of Wordsworth’s sonnets renders obviously absurd, may be pardoned. The sonnets were sent to Miss Mitford and published at Reading, as Sonnets by E.B.B., in 1847. In 1850 they were included, under their final title, in a new issue of poems.
During the Pisan autumn appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine seven poems by Mrs Browning which she had sent some time before, and the publication of which at that moment disturbed her as likely to hurt her father by an apparent reference to her own story. At Pisa also she wrote and sent to America a poem, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim Point,” which was published in Boston, in The Liberty Bell, in 1848, and separately in England in 1849.
In the summer of 1847 the Brownings left their temporary dwelling in Florence and took the apartment in Casa Guidi, near the Pitti Palace, which was thenceforth their chief home. Early in their residence began that excited interest in Italian affairs which made so great a part of Mrs Browning’s emotional life. The Florentines, under the government of the grand duke, were prosperous but disturbed by national aspirations. Mrs Browning, by degrees, wrote Casa Guidi Windows on their behalf and as an appeal to the always impulsive sympathies of England.
In 1849 was born the Brownings’ only child, their beloved son Robert Wiedemann Barrett. After this event Mrs Browning resumed her literary activities, preparing a new issue, with some additions, of her poems (1850). A poem on the death of a friend’s child appeared in the Athenaeum (1849), and there the new volumes were warmly praised. Casa Guidi Windows followed in 1851.
Visiting England in that year, the Brownings saw much of the Procters, and something of Florence Nightingale, Kingsley, Ruskin, Rogers, Patmore and Tennyson, and also of Carlyle, with whom they went to Paris, where they saw George Sand, and where they passed the December days of the coup d’état. Mrs Browning happened to take a political fancy to Napoleon III., whom she would probably have denounced if a tithe of his tyrannies had occurred in Italy, and the fancy became more emotional in after years.
Poem Aurora Leigh
A new edition of Mrs Browning’s poems was called for in 1853, and at about this time, in Florence, she began to work on Aurora Leigh. She was still writing this poem when the Brownings were again in England, in 1855. Tennyson there read to them his newly-written Maud. After another interval in Paris they were in London again—Mrs Browning for the last time. She was with her dear cousin Kenyon during the last months of his life. In October 1856 the Brownings returned to their Florentine home, Mrs Browning leaving her completed Aurora Leigh for publication. The book had an immediate success; a second edition was required in a fortnight, a third a few months later. In the fourth edition (1859) several corrections were made. The review in Blackwood was written by W.E. Aytoun, that in the North British by Coventry Patmore.
In 1857 Mrs Browning addressed a petition, in the form of a letter, to the emperor Napoleon begging him to remit the sentence of exile upon Victor Hugo. We do not hear of any reply. In 1857 Mrs Browning’s father died, unreconciled. Henrietta Barrett had married, like her sister, and like her was unforgiven.
Last Travels and Poems
In 1858 occurred another visit to Paris, and another to Rome, where Hawthorne and his family were among the Brownings’ friends. In 1859 came the Italian war in which Mrs Browning’s hasty sympathies were hotly engaged. Her admiration of Italy’s champion, Napoleon III, knew no bounds, and did not give way when, by the peace of Villafranca, Venice and Rome were left unannexed to the kingdom of Italy, and the French frontiers were “rectified” by the withdrawal from that kingdom of Savoy and Nice. That peace, however, was a bitter disappointment, and her fragile health suffered. At Siena and Florence this year the Brownings were very kind to Landor, old, solitary, and ill.
Mrs Browning’s poem, “A Tale of Villafranca”, was published in the Athenaeum in September, and afterwards included in Poems before Congress (1860). Then followed another long visit to Rome, and there Mrs Browning prepared for the press this, her last volume. The little book was judged with some impatience, A Curse for a Nation being mistaken for a denunciation of England, whereas it was aimed at America and her slavery. The Athenaeum, amongst others, committed this error. The Saturday Review was hard on the volume, so was Blackwood; the Atlas and Daily News favourable. In July 1860 was published “A Musical Instrument” in the young Cornhill Magazine, edited by the author’s friend W.M. Thackeray.
The last blow she had to endure was the death of her sister Henrietta, in the same year. On the 30th of June 1861 Elizabeth Barrett Browning died. Her husband, who tended her alone on the night of her decease, wrote to Miss Blagden: “Then came what my heart will keep till I see her again and longer—the most perfect expression of her love to me within my whole knowledge of her. Always smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl’s, and in a few minutes she died in my arms, her head on my cheek. … There was no lingering, nor acute pain, nor consciousness of separation, but God took her to himself as you would lift a sleeping child from a dark uneasy bed into your arms and the light. Thank God.”
Her married life had been supremely happy. Something has been said of the difference between husband and wife in regard to “spiritualism”, in which Mrs Browning had interest and faith, but no division ever interrupted their entirely perfect affection and happiness. Of her husband’s love for her she wrote at the time of her marriage, “He preferred … of free and deliberate choice, to be allowed to sit only an hour a day by my side, to the fulfilment of the brightest dream which should exclude me in any possible world.” “I am still doubtful whether all the brightness can be meant for me. It is just as if the sun rose again at 7 o’clock P.M.” “I take it for pure magic, this life of mine. Surely nobody was ever so happy before.” “I must say to you [Mrs Jameson] who saw the beginning with us, that this end of fifteen months is just fifteen times better and brighter; the mystical ‘moon’ growing larger and larger till scarcely room is left for any stars at all: the only differences which have touched me being the more and more happiness.”
Browning buried his wife in Florence, under a tomb designed by their friend Frederick Leighton. On the wall of Casa Guidi is placed the inscription: “Qui scrisse e mori Elisabetta Barrett Browning, che in cuore di donna conciliava scienza di dotto e spirito di poeta, e face del suo verso aureo annello fra Italia e Inghilterra. Pone questa lapide Firenze grata 1861.” [Written by Niccolo Tommaseo, translated by Mrs. Newton Crosland as, “Here wrote and died Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who with her woman’s heart combined the soundest learning and a poet’s genius, and made by her verse a golden link between Italy and England. Grateful Florence places this memorial stone. 1861.” (266)] In 1866 Robert Browning published a volume of selections from his wife’s works.
The place of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in English literature is high, if not upon the summits. She had an original genius, a fervent heart, and an intellect that was, if not great, exceedingly active. She seldom has composure or repose, but it is not true that her poetry is purely emotional. It is full of abundant, and even over-abundant, thoughts. It is intellectually restless. The impassioned peace of the greatest poetry, such as Wordsworth’s, is not hers. Nor did she apparently seek to attain those heights.
Her Greek training taught her little of the economy that such a poetic education is held to impose; she “dashed”, not by reason of feminine weakness, but as it were to prove her possession of masculine strength. Her gentler work, as in the Sonnets from the Portuguese, is beyond praise. There is in her poetic personality a glory of righteousness, of spirituality, and of ardour that makes her name a splendid one in the history of an incomparable literature.
Further reading [list from 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica entry]:
- the Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning addressed to R.H. Horne, with Comments on Contemporaries, edited by S.R. Townshend Mayer (2 vols., 1877).
- The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from 1826 to 1844, edited with memoir by J.H. Ingram (1887).
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Eminent Women series), by J.H. Ingram, 1888).
- Records of Tennyson, Ruskin and the Brownings, by Anne Ritchie (1892).
- The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited with biographical additions by Frederick G. Kenyon (2 vols., 1897).
- The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (2 vols., 1899).
- La Vie et l’œuvre d’Elizabeth Browning, by Mlle. Germaine-Marie Merlette (Paris, 1906)
This biography was adapted from an article by Alice Meynell (1847-1922) in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. 4, from the Wikisource 1911 encyclopedia project.
Crosland, Newton (Camilla Toulmin). Landmarks of a Literary Life 1820-1892. New York: Scribner’s, 1893. Google Book Search. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.
Author’s note on her translation of the Casa Guidi inscription: “It is almost presumptuous to attempt a translation of this very idiomatic and expressive Italian–may some other hand have done it better.” (266-267)