Elizabeth Barret Browning - Poetry and Sonnets

Engraving of Elizabeth Barret Browning -1871
Engraving of Elizabeth Barret Browning -1871 | Source
Elizabeth Barret Browning and her son, "Pen."
Elizabeth Barret Browning and her son, "Pen." | Source

Elizabeth Barret Browning 1806-1862

Elizabeth Barret Browning was one of the most prominent English poets of the Victorian Era and it is during this time that she and her husband, Robert Browning, conducted their love affair through verse and produced many tender, loving, and passionate poems.

The Victorian Era was a time in English history that coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and which was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence for Britain. During this time there was a definite shift from the rationalism of the Georgian Period to romanticism and mysticism with regard to religion, social values and the arts. The Victorian Period is also known for its association with values of social and sexual restraint.

This was the English world that Elizabeth Barret was born into and lived her life. Her poetry written during the Victorian Period was widely popular in both Europe and the United States during her lifetime.

She was born into the wealthy Barret family whose wealth came from Jamaican plantations owned by both her paternal and maternal grandfathers. Although the wealth was derived from Jamaica, Elizabeth and her immediate family always lived in England. During her marriage to Robert Browning she lived in Italy, but that will come later.

Elizabeth came from the large Barret family, she was the eldest of 12 children, and they lived at Hope End an estate in Ledbury, Hereforshire in England. This is where Elizabeth grew up and this is where she first began to write poetry - amazingly at the young age of six or eight. This childhood home was also the inspiration for her greatest ambition, here verse/novel, "Aurora Leigh."

Elizabeth was an intensely studious and precocious child. She wrote so much poetry in her youth that her mother compiled her poems into collections of Poems by Elizabeth Barret. Her father, Edward, called her "the Poet Laureate of Hope End," and encouraged her to write. Elizabeth was a voracious reader especially of the writer, Mary Wollstonecraft. Elizabeth became a passionate supporter of women's rights after reading Wollstonecraft's, Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) She became very interested in social injustice in England, also at this time, and she became a passionate with the classics and metaphysics that was reflected in a religious intensity.

She wrote her first poem, On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man, at age six or nine and was published in New Monthly Magazine, in 1821 and her first collection of poems were published in 1826.

Unfortunately, at age fifteen, Elizabeth began a battle with a life-long illness. Doctors were not able to diagnose it at the time, but she suffered from intense head and spinal pain with loss of mobility. In 1837, she also suffered from lung disease, causing her to be very frail and weak. She, therefore, took opiates for pain (laudanum and morphine) commonly prescribed by doctors at the time, and she became dependent on them the rest of her life.

In 1828, at a young age, Elizabeth's mother died and shortly after, her family moved to London. Here Elizabeth became involved in social issues much to her father's chagrin. She was opposed to slavery and became an outspoken Abolitionist in defiance of her father. She was glad when slaves were freed in England's Emancipation Act. Her father believed it would ruin their plantation business in Jamaica and was not happy with Elizabeth's involvement in the issue.

During her time living in London, Elizabeth had a distant cousin, John Kenyon, who introduced her to the important literary figures at the time. She was introduced to William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Mary Russel Mitford, who was to become her good friend in London. Elizabeth continued writing and publishing her work.

In 1841, the Barret family moved to Wimpole St. in London. By this time, Elizabeth's health was failing and she remained upstairs in the home only seeing family and her dog, Flush. The only outside person she saw, was John Kenyon, her cousin. Here, although frail, she continued writing and publishing her poetry. At this time she actually rivaled Tennyson as a candidate for poet laureate of England, but lost out to Tennyson who became England's poet laureate in 1850 upon the death of William Wordsworth.

In 1844, her volume, Poems was published and made her the most popular writer in England and it is this collection of poems that inspired Robert Browning to write to her. In his letter he stated he had been an admirer of her poetry for a long time. Elizabeth couldn't believe Browning was serious about meeting her and turned his requests down several times. Finally, she relented and John Kenyon arranged for Browning to meet Elizabeth in 1845.

Robert Browning met Elizabeth in her rooms at Wimpole St. and so began one of the most famous courtships in literature. Elizabeth was six years his senior, but Browning did not care. He had great influence on her writing and her on his. It was during this loving courtship that Elizabeth wrote her most loved and enduring works.

The verse/novel "Aurora Leigh" she wrote and published in 1856 and is the story of a female writer making her way in life, balancing work and love. The writing depicted was based on similar personal experiences that Elizabeth suffered through herself. She also wrote her famous Sonnets from the Portuguese, ( 1845-46 ) which were her love sonnets to Browning.

Her courtship with Robert Browning and their ultimate marriage were carried out in secret as her father disapproved of his children marrying. He had become quite embittered by his wife's early death. Elizabeth and Browning were privately married at St. Marylebone Parish Church with only her sister and her dog, Flush, in attendance. The Brownings honeymooned in Paris and then moved to Italy to live because the Italian weather was better for Elizabeth's health. When her father, Edward Barret, found out, he disinherited her and each of his children that chose to marry.

In Italy, the Browning's were famous and well-respected. At age 43, although sickly, Elizabeth was able to bear a child, a boy, nicknamed, "Pen", Robert Wiedemann Barret Browning. Against, Elizabeth's wishes, Browning published the second edition of Elizabeth's sonnets and Elizabeth became even more famous and popular. Her critical regard also rose after this publication.

Elizabeth died in 1861 and was buried in the English cemetery in Florence, Italy.

Tomb of Elizabeth Barret Browning in the English Cemetery, Florence, Italy.
Tomb of Elizabeth Barret Browning in the English Cemetery, Florence, Italy. | Source
Illustration from "Aurora Leigh."
Illustration from "Aurora Leigh." | Source
Illuminated copy of Sonnet 30 by Elizabeth Barret Browning.
Illuminated copy of Sonnet 30 by Elizabeth Barret Browning. | Source

"Aurora Leigh" and "Sonnets from the Portuguese"

"Aurora Leigh"

This was the title of the eponymous epic novel/poem written by Elizabeth Barret Browning. She wrote it in blank verse and it contains nine books. (this coincides with the woman's number 9) It is written in first person narration from the point of view of Aurora, the heroine. The poem is set in Florence, Malvern, London, and Paris. In books 1-5 Aurora narrates her past life and in books 6-9 she reports her daily events in diary form. This was Elizabeth's most ambitious work and it appeared in 1856. It is the story of a strong female writer making her way in life and balancing work and love. It is really a description of Elizabeth herself and part of her life.


"Sonnets from the Portuguese"

Published in 1850, these are a collection of forty-four love sonnets written by Elizabeth Barret Browning during her courtship with her husband, Robert Browning. Theirs was a passionate love affair and marriage. It chronicles the period leading up to her 1846 marriage to Robert Browning. She was reluctant to publish these because she felt they were too personal, but Browning insisted they be published and he was correct. They were heralded, loved, and became very popular. Sonnet 43, particularly, has the most famous opening lines to a sonnet in the English language.

Sonnet 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 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.


Edgar Allen Poe was inspired and influenced by Elizabeth's poetry and borrowed her meter for his poem, "The Raven." When her sonnets were published Poe gave them a good review and she returned the favor when The Raven was published. Emily Dickinson was also influenced by Elizabeth and admired her a s a woman of achievement and for her stands against social injustice asnd child labor. Elizabeth's poems were also discovered by the modern women's movement in the 1970's, especially, Aurora Leigh for her creation of a strong and independent woman.

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Comments 18 comments

Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

Great hub of one of the greatest poets. Well done and well researched. Very interesting. In His Love, Faith Reaper


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

An early political activist! Who would have known! That alone was reason enough to say great job on this hub! I learned something new on this sunny Sunday! Good job my friend.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Faith: So glad you enjoyed this. Yes, she is one of the better woman poets. I love her love poems and the story of her life is so inspiring! Thanks so much for the visit, Faith. So appreciated!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi billy: Yes, she was really into her times and she and her father really got into it sometimes. She was an early feminist and a "cougar" LOL. She was six years older than Browning. There are strong women in every era and decade of life. I think hers is a lovely love story also with her courtship with Browning. Thanks so much for reading this. I always enjoy a visit from you!


josh3418 profile image

josh3418 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Suzette,

I had no idea of who Elizabeth was, fantastic review of her life! First poem at age 6, now that is impressive! And the fact that her parents were compassionate about her passion was probably a big help! I thought it was very interesting that Poe was influenced her writing.

Thanks for sharing this informative hub!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

josh: Yes, can you imagine writing a poem at six years old? I think that is extraordinary. And, I too, found it interesting that Poe, of all people, was influenced by her writing. I'm so glad you enjoyed reading this. You keep me laughing and I'll keep educating. LOL Thanks so much for your visit. It is always appreciated!


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

You always manage to teach me something new about these people I love. Ms. Browning was a genius and the fact she wrote such poetry at a tender age is remarkable. The love story between she and Mr. Browning still makes me wistful. I greatly enjoyed this article about one of the world's finest poets and humanitarians.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hyphen: Thank you. I don't actually set out "to teach" but that seems to be what happens. I just present what I consider fine work by others and if that helps or teaches others, I am happy. These are poets and authors I have studied and enjoyed. I find her amazing and a born poet. I know, don't we all wish for the love story like hers and Robert Browning's. Ahh, well, it is stories and poetry like hers that keeps love alive. Thanks so much for the visit - it is greatly appreciated and I always love to hear from you!


vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago

I had no idea Elizabeth was buried in Florence. There's a great possibility I'll visit her grave next year. I just remembered that my husband's cousin wants to take us to Naples, too. We might actually meet in person. Cool!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Yes, because her latter life was spent in Italy and because she was estranged from her father, Robert Browning had her buried in Florence. See it if you can - that is quite some tomb! I never thought I'd have a new friend in Germany - it is cool!


LastRoseofSummer2 profile image

LastRoseofSummer2 3 years ago from Arizona

I'm crazy about Elizabeth Barrett Browning! I particularly like her Rhyme Of The Duchess May, a lesser known poem about a woman whose marriage to a knight incites a battle with another knight. I really fell in love with Robert and Elizabeth after watching the Jeremy Brett version of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Thanks for the hub!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

LastRoseofSummer: I'm so glad you found this hub and read this. I love her poetry and sonnets also. I too have seen The Barretts of Wimpole Street although I'm not sure if I have seen the same version as you. Her life is an inspiration to us all. Thank you so much for stopping by to visit and read this. Your comments are much appreciated.


Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 3 years ago from Riga, Latvia

Voted up and awesome. How I love poetry like this. Thank you for sharing this wonderful hub. Passing this on.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Barret Browning is one of my favorite poets and I love her sonnets. Thanks so much for reading this and for your comments. - most appreciated. Thanks for the share!


Ashok Rao profile image

Ashok Rao 2 years ago from Mumbai, India

I have read her poems didn't know much about her. It's hard to believe that she wrote a poem at the age of six and Edgar Allan Poe, himself an eminent poet and author was influenced by her poems. It's sad that she was not in the best of her health, It would have made a big difference to her career as a poet. It's not just reading the book but also knowing the author, isn't it? It was very interesting. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks!


sharonchristy profile image

sharonchristy 2 years ago from India

Have always followed and loved to learn more about Elizabeth Barett's life. Your hub is interesting as well as detailed, nothing about it is impersonal, it is evident that you hold this wonderful poet in high regard and your words reflect it. Absolutely loved your hub. Thank you so much for sharing it.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Ashok: Yes, I think she was a gifted child to write such a poem at six. The poets all learn from each other just like we do here on HP. That is a common thing among writers. We all are inspired and learn together. I am so glad you found this interesting and enjoyed reading this. That makes me happy. Have a great day, Ashok!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

sharonchristy: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and found it interesting and informative. I do love her poetry and I have always loved her life story especially falling in love with Robert Browning, another poet, and eloping. Such romanticism! Thank you so much for stopping by to read this and for leaving insightful comments. Most appreciated.

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