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Elizabeth Barrett Browning

1808-1861

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

One of the famous Victorian poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born on March 6, 1808 in Coxhoe Hall near Durham, England. Her father was a wealthy man, his money the result of his owning Jamaican sugar plantations. Elizabeth was privately educated, learning classical Greek, Latin and several other languages and exploring any topic which took her fancy. She spent most of her childhood at her father's estate, Hope End, a 500 acre property close to Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. At the age of 15 she became bedridden, possibly due to a spinal injury she acquired in a fall, and she developed lung problems after becoming ill with tuberculosis. For the next decade, she was nearly completely incapacitated and chiefly remained in a single room in her home. During that time, Browning saw her first collection, Essay on Mind and Other Poems, published when she was 19. She followed this with a translation of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound in 1833. After moving to London in 1836 with her family, Browning contributed to many periodicals, and The Seraphim and Other Poems was published in 1838. With her health becoming frailer, Elizabeth's family moved to Torquay, Devon. Her brother drowned during a boating expedition there, which left Elizabeth with an odd and extreme fright of meeting with anyone other than family and established acquaintances and led to her to locking herself away for many years.

However, Browning was already fairly well known in literary circles. When her second volume of poetry was published in 1844, Poems, by E. Barrett Barrett, it was very well received. It was shortly after, in January 1845, that Robert Browning first wrote to her and proclaimed his admiration of her in his note saying, 'I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett. I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart -- and I love you too.' Early that summer the two met, and after a yearlong courtship, on September 12, 1846, they married secretly against the strong protestations of the relationship by her father. The marriage was so secret that she did not move to her new husband's home until a week after the nuptials had taken place. Her father was so adamantly opposed to the union that when he died in 1856, he still had not forgiven her.

Shortly after their marriage, the Brownings moved to and settled in Florence, Italy, where Elizabeth lived for the rest of her life in the villa of Casa Guidi. Her health improved so dramatically that in 1849, at the age of 43, she was able to give birth to a son, whom they named Robert. The next year, Browning's most well known verses, Sonnets from the Portuguese, were published. Elizabeth wrote these pieces in secret during her courtship with Robert, and they record the progress of her love for him. Their title has nothing to do with translations, but with the pet name given to Elizabeth by her husband: He called her 'my Portuguese' because of her dark complexion.

In 1851 and 1855, the Brownings returned to London to visit. It was on their second trip that Elizabeth completed her most lengthy work, Aurora Leigh, a long blank-verse poem telling of the struggles of a young girl in love and the hardships of being a woman at that time. During the final years of her life, Browning's attentions were turned towards spirituality and the occult, and she shocked her friends with her near obsession with Italian politics. Her poem Casa Guidi Windows is a reflection of this. Other social interests are also shown in her later writings, including her poems A Curse for a Nation, denouncing slavery in the United States, and Cry of the Children, attacking child labor in England.

Elizabeth Browning died on June 29, 1861 in Florence after having caught a severe chill. Her son and husband both returned to England after her death. While during her lifetime Elizabeth was exceedingly admired, today her husband is better known, and her Sonnets from the Portuguese, especially the 43rd sonnet ('How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways'), is perhaps the only poetry of hers that is still widely read.



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