Elizabeth Barret Browning - Poetry and Sonnets
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.
"Aurora Leigh" and "Sonnets from the Portuguese"
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.
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.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Biography and Works. Search Texts, Read Online. Discuss.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a searchable collection of works.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning