How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. This week’s Cheat Sheet features the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose birthday it will be tomorrow…
Just the facts:
- Full name - Elizabeth Barrett Browning, née Elizabeth Barrett. Or Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett. Or Elizabeth Barrett Barrett. The family were proud of their surname and wanted it passed down through all family members – though it does start to sound a bit silly when you get to “Barrett Barrett”. Oh, and growing up she had the nickname “Ba”.
- Lived March 6, 1806 - June 29, 1861.
- Born in Coxhoe Hall, County Durham, to Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett (double “Barrett” name again there) and Mary Graham Clarke, she was the eldest of twelve children, eleven of whom survived to adulthood. That should give some measure of their wealth – derived in part from plantation holdings in Jamaica.
- When she was three years old, the family moved to Hope End, near the Malvern Hills in Hertfordshire, which would later serve as inspiration for Aurora Leigh.
- She and her eldest brother Edward (Barrett Moulton Barrett) were tutored at home by Daniel McSwiney, a classics scholar.
- She revelled in classical literature from an early age, learning Greek and Latin and constantly reading novels and poetry.
- Around the age of six she wrote her first poem On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man. Ah, the care free days of youth.
- She wrote so much that her father called her the ”Poet Laureate of Hope End”, whilst her mother began to pull her poems together into collections.
- For her fourteenth birthday, her father had fifty copies of her epic poem, The Battle Of Marathon, printed for her.
- Her reading brought her into contact with ideas such as metaphysics from a young age, which only seems to have strengthened her religious fervour.
- In 1821, she read Mary Wollstonecraft‘s landmark work in feminist philosophy A Vindication Of The Rights of Women, and it had a profound effect on her.
- Also in 1821, at the age of fifteen, her poems were published in The New Monthly Magazine, though it wasn’t until five years later that her first complete collection would appear.
- 1821 was marred however by the beginning of a lifelong illness, which affected her mobility and gave her severe head and spinal pain. The cause of her suffering remained undiagnosed in her lifetime.
- She was prescribed laudanum for the pain and would remain dependent on opiates for the rest of her life. On the up side, the drug probably fuelled some of her wildest flights of imagination
- The death of her mother in 1828 began a period of upheaval for the family, who moved from Hertfordshire, to Devonshire and eventually to London between 1832 and 1837.
- This disruption was also caused in part by upheaval on the family plantations in Jamaica as the Emancipation Act saw the abolition of slavery from the colonies. In theory.
- Whilst Elizabeth was a proud opponent of slavery, publishing poems in support of abolition such as The Runaway Slave and A Curse For A Nation, her father was forced to sell Hope End to cover the losses and lawsuits the new Act caused. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this led to some tension.
- In 1838, the family found themselves living at 50 Wimpole Street in London (look out for the blue plaque if you’re passing), where Elizabeth was introduced to many key literary figures of the age, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth.
- In the same year she published The Seraphim and Other Poems but was also forced to move to Torquay at the instruction of her doctor to try to combat the tuberculosis she was suffering.
- In the summer of 1840, her beloved brother Edward, who had moved to Torquay with her against their father’s wishes, drowned whilst sailing.
- This event, combined with the death earlier that year of another brother in Jamaica, led her to confide in a letter to her friend Mary Russell Mitford that she had ”a very near escape from madness, absolute hopeless madness”.
- Returning to London in 1841, her health recovered whilst she remained mainly alone in her room, visited by few people and but for the pet spaniel Flush, given to her by Mary Mitford.
- Her solitude did however allow her to concentrate her mind wonderfully on her writing and her output of prose, translation, criticism and poetry, as well as correspondance, between 1841 and 1844 was all but unparalleled.
- Her 1844 publication, Poems, led to long-time fan, first-time correspondent Robert Browning writing to her to express his admiration for her work.
- Her cousin John Kenyon, who had always been instrumental in introducing Elizabeth to the great and the good of London’s literary scene, arranged a visit by Browning to Wimpole Street on 20th May 1845.
- They began a secret courtship, with Elizabeth not only convinced that her family would disapprove of Browning, but also that this young man, six years her junior, might not be entirely sincere in his love for such a frail invalid.
- During the 20 months of their courtship, the couple exchanged nearly 600 letters.
- Her concerns over his sincerity proved unfounded however when on 12th September 1846 they married in a private service at St Marylebone Parish Church, before the couple ran off to live in Italy.
- She was quite right to worry about her family’s reaction though – her father did indeed disinherit her when he learned of the marriage. But then he’d done the same to each of his children when they’d married. He just loved disinheriting. Couldn’t get enough of it.
- The couple lived a comfortable life in Italy, becoming part of a circle of artists and writers such as William Makepeace Thackeray, George Sand, John Ruskin and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
- In 1849, at the age of 43, she gave birth to their one and only son
- In 1850 she published Sonnets From The Portuguese, a collection of poems which chronicled the growth of her love for Browning – whose nickname for her was his “little Portuguese”.
- She moved to Siena following the death of her father and the deterioration of her health. There she wrote and published a volume of political poems, Poems Before Congress, which caused her to be labelled a fanatic back in England for her pro-Italian stance in the Second Italian War of Independence.
- Returning to Rome in 1860, she learned of the death of her sister Henrietta and gradually grew more depressed. With her depression, she weakened and took more morphine to ease her persistent pain.
- She died in her husband’s arms on She died on 29th June, 1861.
- Apparently her last word was “Beautiful”. As in the word “beautiful” was her last word – not that the last word she spoke was a beautiful one. Like “mellifluous” – which is a beautiful word.
Key work: There may be better poems amongst her work, but undoubtedly the best known, and most enduring would be Sonnet XLIII from Sonnets From The Portuguese:
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 every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
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.
Anecdote: Since their correspondence is seen as being one of the greatest romances in literature, we thought we’d share the first letter that Robert Browning wrote to Elizabeth on 10th January 1845:
I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, – and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, – whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me – for in the first flush of delight I though I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration – perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of hereafter! – but nothing comes of it all – so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew… oh, how different that is from lying to be dried and pressed flat and prized highly and put in a book with a proper account at bottom, and shut up and put away… and the book called a ‘Flora’, besides! After all, I need not give up the thought of doing that, too, in time; because even now, talking with whoever is worthy, I can give reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought – but in this addressing myself to you, your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart – and I love you too: do you know I was once seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning “would you like to see Miss Barrett?” – then he went to announce me, – then he returned… you were too unwell – and now it is years ago – and I feel as at some untoward passage in my travels – as if I had been close, so close, to some world’s-wonder in chapel on crypt,… only a screen to push and I might have entered – but there was some slight… so it now seems… slight and just-sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be!
Well, these Poems were to be – and this true thankful joy and pride with which I feel myself.
Yours ever faithfully
DO say: “”her poetic inspiration is the highest—we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself.” (Edgar Allan Poe in a review of Barrett Browning’s poetry)
DON’T say: “Once her father disinherited her, you’d have thought she’d have dropped the “Barrett”…”
Dan Lewis, for Waterstones.com/blog
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