Elizabeth Barrett Browning was among the most eminent English poets of the Victorian era. Her works were immensely famous in England as well as in United States. Browning contributed greatly to the English poetry of the nineteenth century through her works. In her writings, she devotedly brought to light several social issues such as child labor, slavery and oppression of women. Afterwards, she deeply expressed her views on political opinions of the struggle between Italy and Austria. Browning was largely read by her contemporaries. She mainly enjoyed the reputation of being a great writer of love poems like “Sonnets from the Portuguese” and “Aurora Leigh.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning Childhood & Early Life
Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett was born on March 6, 1806, in Coxhoe Hall, between the villages of Coxhoe and Kelloe in County Durham, England to Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke. She was the eldest out of the 12 children the couple had. Fondly she was called “Ba.” The Barrett family had resided in Jamaica for a large number of years, where they were owners of sugar plantations and were dependent on slave labor. Elizabeth’s father opted to raise his family in England, while his fortune was rising in Jamaica. In 1809, she was baptized at Kelloe Parish Church. In late 1809 only, her father purchased Hope End, which was a 500-acre estate near the Malvern Hills in Ledbury, Herefordshire. Elizabeth received her education at home and attended lessons with the tutor of her brother. During her time in Hope End, she was an extremely studious and smart girl. Since childhood, Elizabeth was quite attached to her siblings and father.
Elizabeth wrote her first known poem at the tender age of six or eight, titled “On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man”. The manuscript of the same is presently in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. As a gift on her 14th birthday, her father insured the publication of her long Homeric poem titled “The Battle of Marathon.” In May 1821, her first independent publication came out in The New Monthly Magazine, titled “Stanzas Excited by Reflections on the Present State of Greece”. This was followed by the publication of "Thoughts Awakened by Contemplating a Piece of the Palm which Grows on the Summit of the Acropolis at Athens" two months later.
In 1826, Elizabeth’s first collection of poems, “An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems.”was published. With this publication, she grabbed the attention of the Greek language’s blind scholar, Hugh Stuart Boyd and another Greek scholar, Uvedale Price. Also, afterwards considering the suggestion of Boyd, she translated Aeschylus' “Prometheus Bound”. During her friendship with Boyd, Elizabeth studied Greek literature, which included Homer, Pindar and Aristophanes. In 1824, case in the court on the issue of the estate in Jamaica had decided in the favor of her cousins which triggered the sudden financial decline of the family. At the age of 20, Elizabeth contracted a serious lifelong sickness, which medical science of that time couldn’t diagnose. To get relieve from the pain, she began taking morphine and by the course of time became addicted to the same. This sickness made her delicate and quite weak.
Residences & Publications
Elizabeth’s mother died in 1828. Between the years 1832-1837, the family moved initially to a white Georgian building in Sidmouth, Devonshire, where they resided for three years and then shifted to Gloucester Place in London. Elizabeth was a strong opponent of slavery and therefore published two poems focusing the barbarity of slavers and her great support towards abolitionist cause, titled “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point” and “A Curse for a Nation”. Post the loss of the property in Jamaica after the result of the lawsuit, the family had to forcefully sell Hope End. Some years post the sale of Hope End, the family moved to 50 Wimpole Street. During this time, Elizabeth got introduced to several literary figures in London by her distant cousin including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. She wrote other poems like “The Romaunt of Margaret”, “The Romaunt of the Page” and “The Poet's Vow”.
“The Seraphim and Other Poems” was published in 1838. Same year, after the request of from her physician, Elizabeth shifted toTorquay, on the Devonshire coast. Her brother Edward also accompanied her. However, Elizabeth’s health further declined after the tragic sailing accident at Torquay, wherein her brother drowned. The family soon moved back to Wimpole Street. On her return, Elizabeth mainly stayed at her room and did not see a lot of people as she blamed herself for her brother’s death. Nonetheless, writing poetry still remained an important part of her life. It was during this time that “The Cry of the Children” was published. During the same time, she also contributed some of the crucial prose works to “A New Spirit of the Age” of Richard Henry Horne. Elizabeth published two volumes of “Poems” in 1844 which included “A Drama of Exile”, “A Vision of Poets”, and “Lady Geraldine's Courtship”.
Meeting Robert Browning
The publication of “Poems” made Elizabeth Barrett one of the most famous writers of that era. Such was the impact of “Poems” that it inspired Robert Browning to write to Elizabeth, expressing that he simply loved her works.In May 1845, Kenyon organized meeting of Robert Browning and Elizabeth. The two started what was one of the most popular courtships in literature. Though Robert had started penning poems much later than Elizabeth, he had a great influence on her writing just as she had on his. It was after her meeting Robert that Elizabeth came out with two of her most outstanding works, “Sonnets from the Portuguese” and “Aurora Leigh”.
The courtship and marriage between Robert Browning and Elizabeth were more of a secret affair. They privately got married at St. Marylebone Parish Church. She moved to Italy in September 1846 and lived there almost continuously for the rest of her life. Her loyal nurse also went to Italy with the couple. Elizabeth’s father, however, broke all contacts with her as he did with all his children who married and disinherited her. The couple had a harmonious relationship and was respected in the society. Post marriage, Browning’s health enhanced with time and in 1849, she delivered a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, whom they lovingly called “Pen”. On her husband Robert’s insistence, Browning came out with the second edition of Elizabeth’s Poems which contained her love sonnets too.
Decline & Death
After the death of her old friend, G.B. Hunter and her father, Elizabeth again began to become weak. Her lungs started deteriorating. She then shifted from Florence to Siena, stayed at the Villa Alberti. During this time, she published a small volume of political poems entitled “Poems before Congress” in 1860, which she dedicated to her husband Robert. In 1860, the couple returned back to Rome, on the news of the demise of Elizabeth’s sister, Henrietta. This incident further contributed to the decline of her health. Slowly, she became quite weak and depressed. Following her extremely ill health, Elizabeth died on June 29, 1861. She was interred in the English Cemetery of Florence.