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Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Woman for All Seasons.

Updated on May 30, 2011
Elizebeth Barrett Browning
Elizebeth Barrett Browning

This gloriously intelligent and passionate woman, of olive hues and dark, abundant hair, of flashing poetic genius, was born March 6, 1806, in Durham, England...An avid reader, by age 10 she had devoured Shakespeare and Milton...By age 12 she had written her first "epic" poem, which consisted of four books of rhyming couplets.

As a teenager, Elizabeth taught herself Hebrew so she could read the Old Testament in the original. Her interests later turned to the Greek classics, prompting her to learn that language as well. If she had been aware of the haiku form I'm sure she would have taught herself Japanese, such were the language skills of this brilliant woman. Accompanying her appetite for the classics was a passionate enthusiasm for her Christian faith. She became active in the Bible and Missionary Societies of her church.

In 1826 Elizabeth anonymously published her collection An Essay on Mind and Other Poems. Later, Elizabeth published her famous translation of Prometheus Bound (1833), which gained the positive attention of .writers and critics throughout Europe, including George Sand, with whom she exchanged numerous letters...Over the next 5 years she wrote The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), written in the form of classical Greek tragedy. She was now considered a major player in English literature circles. Some even suggesting she become the next Poet Laureate after Wordsworth.

Due to her weakening disposition arising from a childhood bout with tuberculosis, she was forced to spend a year at the sea of Torquay accompanied by her beloved younger brother Edward, whom she referred to as "Bro." Tragically, he drowned later that year while sailing at Torquay. When Elizabeth returned home she retreated to her bedroom where she resided for the next 5 years. emotionally broken, invalid, and inconsolable. It was during this period that she wrote vicariously of love, as in her " Lady Geraldine's Courtship " poem. That vicarious love was soon to blossom into real love and change her life.

In 1844 she produced a collection entitled simply "Poems ". Shortly after publication an exchange of letters developed between Elizabeth and the English poet Robert Browning, whom Elizabeth had praised in one of her poems, Over the next 2 years they exchanged some 574 letters These letters are reproduced in a book available at Amazon ( http://www.amazon.com/Selected-Elizabeth-Barett-Browning-Fyfield/dp/0415967252/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1305662073&sr=1-1 )..They are a fascinating read that allows us to peek into their private thoughts and expressions of a high romance.

Over the objections of her tyrannical father, who bitterly opposed any of his children getting married, the couple eloped in 1846 and settled in Florence, Italy. The union quickly produced a son, Robert Wiedemann Browning.

In 1850 her " Sonnets from the Portuguese " were published. These were composed during her courtship with Robert Browning and owes its title to the endearment he had for her. He often referred to her as his " little Portuguese " due her dark hair and complexion which she inherited from her Creole forebears. The Barrett family had made their fortunes for centuries as owners of sugar plantations using slave labor in Jamaica. Elizabeth was the first Barrett to be born in England. Later in life she would write passionately against slavery and other social issues, including women's rights, child labor, and Italian politics.

Critics generally consider the Sonnets to be her best work. They are one of the most widely known collections of love lyrics in English. The most oft quoted poem from this collection is " How do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways...".,Admirers have compared her imagery to Shakespeare and her use of the Italian form to Petrarch.

The example of successful novelists like the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, and George Sand provoked women to rebel in the late Victorian period and demand a wider variety of opportunities.

Browning's Aurora Leigh ( 1857 ) is an experiment in a new poetic form, the verse novel, and has as its subject matter those things that were issues of the day for Victorian women.. It became one of the longest poems in the English language in its number of lines. Browning thought it her most mature work, and it turned out to be her biggest commercial success. Aurora Leigh deals with some of the major social problems of her age, particularly the difficulty of being a professional woman in the Victorian Age..

The poem also reveals a distrust of socialist theory, in that Browning feared that communist-style communities would exclude artists and poets. I wonder what would have been the course of a conversation between Elizabeth and Ayn Rand.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning died at home in Florence, Italy, on June 29, 1861.

For those interested in reading her prose and poetry I have added an Amazon capsule at the bottom. I leave you with this favorite snippet from her Sonnets :

XXXVIII

First time he kissed me, he but only kissed
The fingers of this hand wherewith I write;
And ever since, it grew more clean and white.
Slow to world-greetings, quick with its "O, list,"
When the angels speak. A ring of amethyst
I could not wear here, plainer to my sight,
Than that first kiss....

Copyright Larry L. Conners 2011

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    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks for a very thorough and informative hub on Elizabeth Browning. I enjoyed it very much.

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      breakfastpop 5 years ago

      I thoroughly enjoyed this hub, maven. You are truly a Renaissance Man. Up, useful and awesome.

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      jellio_123 5 years ago

      Hi maven. This was great and so informative and your passion shines through. What would be even cooler is if you wrote the imaginary conversation between Browning and Rand. I think that would be awesome.

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      sligobay 5 years ago from east of the equator

      This is a wonderful and informative article, Larry. I've always enjoyed the poetry or sonnets of Elizabeth but was unaware of her full body of work. This article fills a gap in my education and I am much obliged.

    • maven101 profile image
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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Pamela...Thanks for stopping by ...I'm glad you enjoyed this brief bio and tribute...Have you read her Sonnets ?

      Peace and love to you, Larry

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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Patti, my sagacious breakfastpop...Thank you for the appreciated comments...See you at the table...Love and peace, Larry

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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Jamie ( jellio )...Nice to hear from you and I really appreciate you taking the time from your hectic life to read and comment on this hub...

      What a wonderful idea...You have motivated me to pursue that imaginary conversation between two women I greatly admire. I'm not sure my intellect and knowledge will permit me to presume what these passionate and highly intelligent women would discuss, but I'll give it my best shot...Look for it in about 2 weeks...Now I have something to do other than spring clean at the command of she who must be obeyed...Thanks...Larry

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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Gerry...Thank you for stopping by and commenting...I thought it quite interesting that her affectionate term for her brother, " Bro ", is in common slang usage now...Nothing new under the sun, is there...

      Stay well my friend, Larry

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      sligobay 5 years ago from east of the equator

      Larry- I find it more interesting that Bro died and left her inconsolable. The soul lies deep and yet visible at the surface. You made my day with this article. Thanks.

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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Gerry...So much more to her life than what I have sketched out here...Some questions I have pondered are the father's insistence that his children not marry...Was he conflicted over his family's Creole heritage..? What was the true nature of her relationship with George Sand..? Was " Aurora Leigh " semi-autobiographical..?

      A most interesting woman whose mind I must try to enter when I write about that imaginary conversation between her and Ayn Rand, another woman I greatly admire...Larry

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 5 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Well done, maven101. I enjoyed this very much.

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      anneharrison 5 years ago

      Thankyou, I really enjoyed reading this... inspired now to rediscover her works, Anne

    • maven101 profile image
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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      William...Thank you, my friend...You honor me with your erudite presence...Larry

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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Anne...Elizabeth left us 150 years ago but her message of love is eternal...My recent reading of her " Aurora Leigh " took on an intellectual significance I missed when first read in college...The more I researched this amazing woman the more intrigued I became with her prescient passion for women's suffrage and social reforms. She wrote of love and social injustice with equal passion and equal clarity. As she herself has written: " The world's male chivalry has perished out, but women are knights-errant to the last; and, if Cervantes had been greater still, he'd have made his Don a Donna."...Larry

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      debugs 5 years ago from Odessey777, Umbris

      @Maven, this is interesting, informative and actually AWESOME!!!! Whatta woman! :) Great hub 5 stars if there were a scoring system here!

    • maven101 profile image
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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      debugs...She is a most fascinating woman...Her wonderfully passionate " Sonnets from the Portuguese " was writ during her 20 month courtship with Robert Browning. Never meant for publication, they were a private expression of her passionate love for Browning. She presented them to him for his birthday in 1849. Upon reading the " Sonnets " Browning was astounded at the intellectual depth and poetic beauty of them. He convinced Elizabeth to have them published. As a result the world now has " How do I love thee...? Let me count the ways...".

      Thank you for the appreciated comments, and if I may paraphrase from them, You, my dear, are also quite a woman...Your humor always gives me pleasure...Love and peace, Larry

    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 5 years ago

      Wonderful! And like you, I will now re-read her work.

    • maven101 profile image
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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      sheila...So much more to discover about this woman...I just finished reading an obscure essay on her anti-slavery themed ballads that she had sent to America in 1847...She accompanied the poems with a note to a Ms Mary Russell Mitford which read in part, " I just finished my rough sketch of an antislavery ballad & sent it off to America, where nobody will print it, I am certain, because I could not help making it bitter. If they do print it, I shall think them more boldly in earnest, than I fancy now...". The poem, " The Runaway Slave " was suggested by her knowledge of slavery through her families long history of their exploitation of them in Jamaica...

      Enjoy your renewed readings of this remarkable woman which just within the last 10 years has been resurrected and given her rightful place in history as a political thinker, poet, and feminist that fought for women's rights in a Victorian era dominated by men...Larry

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      Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

      Larry- I really enjoyed this overview of such a talented poet and woman. You have rekindled an interest that I had put aside after finishing up the literature classes that I really loved. Thank you!

    • maven101 profile image
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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      cat...It gives me immense pleasure to have rekindled your interest in the classics of literature...I find myself appreciating so much more the depth, timelessness, and passion of these great writers of poems and prose now that I have matured and experienced life to a healthy measure...So many hidden gems of eternal truth to be discovered and contemplated, to be discussed with good friends over a glass of fine wine...

      Thank you for the appreciated comments, how can I thank thee, let me count the ways....Larry

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      Genna East 5 years ago

      This is such a superb hub on one of my favorite poets; thank you!

    • maven101 profile image
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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Genna...She is one of my favorites also...her influence on Emily Dickinson is philosophically profound ...Both women rebelled against an unequal world dominated by men...Both had immense passion of the heart and soul...

      Thanks for dropping by, Larry

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      Eileen Kersey 5 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Beautiful hub full of information

    • maven101 profile image
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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      ethel...Thanks for leaving such nice comments...Larry

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      Beth Perry 5 years ago from Tennesee

      Although I don't care for the subject matter of all of Mrs. Brownings' work I love her style. And "How Do I Love Thee" is one of my favorite poems. When my husband and I were married the Lakota gentleman who performed the ceremony recited this beforehand.

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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      bethperry...What a wonderful prelude to your wedding...Thanks for the appreciated comments

      Love and peace to you and your fortunate husband...Larry

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      Sharilee Swaity 5 years ago from Canada

      I studied Aurora Leigh in one of my university English classes but I did not know this much about her. Very interesting and stimulating article! What a woman! Thanks for sharing.

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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      PP...Aurora Leigh was her most commercially successful publication...One of the longest poems in literature, full of declarations and feminist demands that are commonplace now, thanks to her and others that insisted on equal rights for women...Some believe it is autobiographical...

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your appreciated comments...Larry

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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      I taught both Brownings, and I enjoyed reading your hub about EBB. Great job - voted up!

    • maven101 profile image
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      maven101 5 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Hi habee...Thanks for stopping by and leaving the appreciated comments...

      What exactly did you teach them..?...Larry

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