Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Biography & Literary Contribution

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      Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning is perhaps best known for her 'Sonnets From the Portuguese' and 'Aurora Leigh' as well as the love story between her and fellow poet Robert Browning.

In 1846, at the age of forty, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were married, and stole off to Italy, where they made Florence their headquarters.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning


      Born in 1806, Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning published her first major collection, The Seraphim and Other Poems, in 1838. Her collection Poems (1844) caught the attention of fellow poet Robert Browning, whose admiring letter to her led to a life-long romance and marriage. The couple moved to Italy where Elizabeth became interested in Italian politics and released her monumental work, Sonnets From the Portuguese in 1850.

      Elizabeth Barrett, was the daughter of a West India planter, and was born at Durham. She began to write poems at the age of eight; her first published work worth mentioning was An Essay on Mind: with Other Poems (1826), which is of slight importance. When she was about thirty years old delicate health prostrated her, and for the rest of her life she was almost an invalid.

Early Life

      Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born on March 6, 1806, at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, England. She was the oldest of 12 children, and her family made their fortune from Jamaican sugar plantations. Educated at home, Barrett was a precocious reader and writer. Having delved into classics such as the works of John Milton and William Shakespeare before her teen years, she also wrote her first book of poetry by age 12. Deeply religious, Barrett's writing often explored Christian themes, a trait that would remain throughout her life's works.

Emerging Writer

      At age 14, Barrett developed a lung illness that required her to take morphine for the rest of her life, and the following year, she suffered a spinal injury that would serve as another setback. Despite her health issues, Barrett lived the literary life to the fullest, teaching herself Hebrew; studying Greek culture and publishing her first book In 1820, The Battle of Marathon, which her father bound and released privately.

      In 1826, she (anonymously) published the collection An Essay on Mind and Other Poems, which became a touchstone in her writing career. Unfortunately, fate would throw more obstacles her way soon after its release. Barrett's mother died two years later and her father's business foundered, forcing him to sell their estate. The family eventually settled in London, but the interruption never gave Barrett pause. Soon after the estate was sold, she published her translation of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound (1833), and in 1838, she published The Seraphim and Other Poems.

      Barrett's poor health forced her to live with her brother Edward near the Sea of Torquay for a period, but tragedy would strike again when he drowned, and she returned to London, emotionally and physically shattered. Whether it was despite or because of her continued struggles, Barrett continued writing, and in 1844 her collection titled Poems was published. Besides catching the eye of the reading public, it also drew the attention of established English poet Robert Browning. Browning wrote Barrett a letter, and the pair exchanged nearly
600 letters over the following 20 months, which culminated in their elopement in 1846. Barrett's father was very much against the marriage, and he never spoke with his daughter again.

      In 1846, at the age of forty, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were married, and stole off to Italy, where they made Florence their headquarters. She was a woman of acute sensibilities, and was fervid in the support of many good causes, one of which was the attainment of Italian independence. On the death of Wordsworth in 1850 it was suggested that the Laureateship should be conferred upon her, but the project fell through. After a very happy married life she died at Florence. Only the chief of her numerous poetical works can be mentioned here. After her first work noted above there was a pause of nine years; then appeared Prometheus Bound (1833). Other works are The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), Sonnets from the Portuguese (1847), Casa Guidi Windows (1851), Aurora Leigh (1857), an immense poem in blank verse, and Last Poems (1862). She wrote many of her shorter pieces for magazines, the most important contributions being The Cry of the Children (1841) for Blackwood's and A Musical Instrument (1860) for the Cornhill.

      As a narrative poet Mrs Browning is a comparative failure, for in method she is discursive and confused, but she has command of a sweet, clear, and often passionate style. She has many slips of taste, and-her desire for elevation sometimes leads her into what Rossetti called "falsetto masculinity," a kind of hysterical bravado. Metrical faults and bad rhymes mar much of her verse, but in the intimate and ardent Sonnets from the Portuguese, on which her fame now rests, the form necessarily restricts her discursiveness, and her love for Robert Browning shines clear.

Established Poet

      In 1849, the Browning's only child, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, was born in Florence, Italy, the couple's newly adopted country. A year later, Barrett Browning released Sonnets From the Portuguese, a collection of 44 love sonnets that would become one of her seminal works and one of the greatest sequences of sonnets in history. The collection was dedicated to Browning and written in secret during their courtship. "Sonnet 43" begins with "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," a line that itself would have sealed Barrett Browning's place in the literary canon if all else had somehow failed to do so.

      Life in Florence was good to the poet's creative process, as was the roiling political and social atmosphere in Italy. She published the politically charged poem "Casa Guidi Windows" in 1851. Barrett Browning followed it up in 1856 with Aurora Leigh (a blank-verse novel/poem), which is her longest work, and then Poems Before Congress in 1860. Included in the Poems Before Congress collection is "A Curse for a Nation," which criticized slavery in America (although she doesn't specifically mention the country's name). The Boston abolitionist publication, The Independent, first published the poem in 1856.

      She could never overcome her generally weak constitution though, and Barrett Browning died in Florence on June 29, 1861, at the age of 55 as one of the most beloved poets of the Romantic Movement.


• The Battle of Marathon: A Poem (1820)
• An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826)
• Miscellaneous Poems (1833)
• The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838)
• Poems (1844)
• A Drama of Exile: and other Poems (1845)
• Poems: New Edition (1850)
• The Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1850)
• Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850)
• Casa Guidi Windows: A Poem (1851)
• Poems: Third Edition (1853)
• Two Poems (1854)
• Poems: Fourth Edition (1856)
• Aurora Leigh (1857)
• Napoleon III in Italy, and Other Poems (1860)
• Poems before Congress (1860)
• Last Poems (1862)
• The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1900)
• Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Hitherto Unpublished Poems and
• Stories (1914)
• New Poems by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1914)
• "Queen Annelida and False Arcite;" "The Complaint of Annelida to False Arcite/' (1841)
• A New Spirit of the Age (1844)
• "The Daughters of Pandarus" from the Odyssey (1846)
• The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets (1863)
• Psyche Apocalypte: A Lyrical Drama (1876)
• Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Addressed to Richard Hengist Horne (1877)
• The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1897)
• The Poet's Enchiridion (1914)
• Letters to Robert Browning and Other Correspondents by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1916)
• Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to Her Sister, 1846- 1S59 (1929)
• Letters from Elizabeth Barrett to B. R. Haydon (1939) Twenty/ Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett to Hugh Stuart Boyd (1950)
• New Letters from Mrs. Browning to Isa Blagden (1951) The Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Miff ord (1954)
• Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Hugh Stuart Boyd (1955)
• Letters of the Brownings to George Barrett (1958) Diary by L. B. B.: The Unpublished Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1831-1832 (1969)
• The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1845-1846 (1969)
• Invisible Friends (1972)
• Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy, 1849-1861 (1973).

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