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ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING (1806–1861)
“A woman of undoubted genius and most unusual learning.”—Quarterly Review
'She has surpassed all her poetic contemporaries of either sex, with one exception (Tennyson).”—Edgar Allan Poe.
“So Robert Browning and Miss Barrett have married. I hope they understand each other. Nobody else would.”—Wordsworth.
“ All a wonder and a wild desire."-Browning.
“ ELIZABETH BARRETT, daughter of Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, and Mary his wife, born at Coxhoe Hall, County of Durham, March the 6th, at seven o'clock in the evening, in the year 1806.” So runs the parish register recording the birth of the poetess. Mr. Barrett was a man of despotic temper with a fixed belief in the divine right of fathers, but he encouraged and was proud of his gifted daughter, who repaid him with a passionate affection. “I wrote verses very early,” she says. “The Greeks were my demigods and haunted me out of Pope's Homer till I dreamt more of Agamemnon than of Moses the black pony. Of a childish epic in four books, called the Battle of Marathon,' fifty copies were printed because papa was bent on spoiling me.” To her brother Edward, her inseparable companion in work and play, she owed her early knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics and the pet name of Ba, by which she was known to the end of her life. “We lived at Hope End," she writes, “in a retirement scarcely broken except by my books and my own thoughts. A bird in a cage could have as good a story.” During these quiet years of her girlhood the well-known Greek student, Hugh Stuart Boyd, ame to live at Great Malvern. A fast friendship sprang up between them. The long mornings spent with him over their beloved Greek she describes in “ Wine of Cyprus
Which my thought goes far to seek,
Solemn flowed the rhythmic Greek.
Past the pane the mountain spreading
Swept the sheep-bell's tinkling noise,
Somewhat low for ai's and oi's."
resided at Sidmouth. In 1835 she published “ Prometheus Bound," a translation from the Greek of Æschylus. Then they moved to 74 Gloucester Place, London, and here Elizabeth met many important literary people, especially Mary Russell Mitford, who thus describes her appearance at that time: “A slight girlish figure, very delicate, with exquisite hands and feet; a round face with a most noble forehead; large dark eyes with such eyelashes; a dark complexion, literally as bright as the dark China rose; a profusion of silky dark curls; and a look of youth and modesty hardly to be expressed.”
“ Then came the failure in my health, which had never been strong," writes Elizabeth. Henceforth she was restricted to an invalid routine, but her poetry continued to afford an absorbing occupation. She soon had access to the columns of several magazines. In 1838 the family removed to 50 Wimpole Street. The same year she published “The Seraphim and Other Poems," which included "Cowper's Grave." The death of her brother, Edward, who was drowned like Shelley in a yacht, so undermined her remaining strength that from 1840 on she lived in the seclusion of a darkened room in almost daily expectation of death. Meanwhile her poetic fame was growing. “The Cry of the Children,” suggested by a “ Report on Mines and Factories,” attracted much attention. Late in 1844 there were published two volumes of poems of hers. They included “ The Drama of Exile," " The Cry of the Children," "A Vision of Poets,” and “ Lady Geraldine's Courtship.” A burst of applause greeted them and Elizabeth Barrett was universally recognized as the greatest woman-poet of her time.
The volume came into the hands of a slim, dark, very handsome young man, who was himself the author of a notable poem called “ Paracelsus.” His name was Robert Browning. In January 10, 1845, he wrote her that he prized her work. At first his request to be allowed to see the poetess was refused on account of the seclusion required by her health; but he carried his point (Robert Browning carried most points), and on May 21, 1845, the two poets met. Immediately their fate was sealed. The story of their courtship has been twice given to the world: first in her“ Sonnets from the Portuguese and since in“ The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett ” --the only letters that ever passed between them, for after their marriage they were never apart.
Her health and the almost insane opposition of Mr. Barrett to the marriage of any of his children at first caused them serious anxiety. Her condition, however, under the stimulus of happiness improved to such an extent that the doctors urged a winter abroad for her. This her father refused to sanction and his refusal drove the two lovers to risk the final step. Accordingly, on September 12, 1846, they were married in the strictest privacy. A week later they departed, also in strict privacy, for the continent.
It was soon evident that the hazardous experiment was a success. Mrs. Browning's health rallied under the influence of sunshine without and within. Their first resting place was Pisa, where they spent the winter of 1846–1847. In April they moved to Florence, rented an old palace called Casa Guidi, and lived there to the end of her life for nothing or next to nothing, with six beautiful rooms and a kitchen, three of them quite palace rooms, opening on a terrace opposite the gray wall of a church called San Felice for good omen. Here the happy days sped on with little to mark their flight except the gift to the world from time to time of new poems from one or the other; and here on March 9, 1849, their only child, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, was born. In 1850, on the death of Wordsworth, the “ Athenæum " suggested that Mrs. Browning be made poetlaureate as a graceful compliment to a youthful queen in recognition of the remarkable literary place taken by women in her reign. In the summer of 1851 they visited England, but her father did not answer a letter in which she asked him so far to relent as to kiss her child. Her“ Casa Guidi Windows," a plea for the freedom of Italy, was published this year. Her mind at this time, to the annoyance of her husband, was much occupied with the phenomena of spiritualism. In 1856 she published" Aurora Leigh,” a romance in nine books of blank verse. Its success was immediate and wide.
Thus they dwelt at Casa Guidi, she happy except for the infamy of the English public, who recognized her genius but would not or could not understand the far greater genius of her husband. “While in America,” she added, “ he is a power, a writer, a poet-he is read he lives in the heart of the people.” Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of their appreciative American visitors; and their friend W. W. Story, the American sculptor, has left the best picture we have of their home.
“We can never forget the square ante-room with its pianoforte, at which the boy Browning passed many an hour; the little dining-room where hung medallions of Tennyson, Carlyle, and Robert Browning; the long room filled with plaster-casts and studies, which was Mr. Browning's retreat; and, dearest of all, the drawing
room where she always sat.
To those who loved Mrs. Browning-and to know her was to love her-she was singularly attractive. Hers was not the beauty of feature; it was the loftier beauty of expression. Her slight figure seemed hardly large enough to contain the great heart that beat so fervently within. Her character was well-nigh perfect. Association with the Brownings, even though of the slightest nature, made one better in mind and soul.”
The loss of a sister, disappointment over the political fortunes of Italy, and the failure of the public to recognize her husband's genius gradually brought back her old weakness. She died June 29, 1861. Her last word, in reply to his question, “How do you feel?” was "Beautiful.” She was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Florence. Her husband had a white marble memorial erected over her grave, and the city of Florence recorded her gratitude on a slab, also of white marble, on the wall of Casa Guidi.
Her lyrics stand among the best in English. They are distinguished by hate of hate, love of love, and scorn of scorn. Some slight notion of their power and beauty may perhaps be gained from the following quotations: “ It is a place where poets crowned may feel the heart's decaying, It is a place where happy saints may weep amid their praying; Yet let the grief and humbleness as low as silence languish! Earth surely now may give her calm to whom she gave her anguish. O poets ! from a maniac tongue was poured the deathless singing ! O Christians! at your cross of hope a hopeless hand was clinging! O men! this man in brotherhood, your weary paths beguiling, Groaned inly while he taught you peace and died while ye were smiling."
-A Vision of Poets.
The crowns o' the world! Oh eyes sublime-
Ibid. "Yes!! I answered you last night;
· No!' this morning, Sir, I say. Colors seen by candle light Will not look the same by day."
-The Lady's “Yes."