Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Browning was the most respected woman poet of the Victorian age. Her work is known for its formal iconoclasm, impetuosity of tone, and political content.
Elizabeth Barrett was the eldest of the eleven children of Edward Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke. She grew up at Hope End, a large country house in Herefordshire. Both parents, but especially her father, encouraged her to read widely; unlike most privileged girls of her time, she was allowed free use of her father’s library and shared her brothers’ classical tuition. Her father arranged for her epic poem The Battle of Marathon (1820) to be privately published when she was fourteen.
In 1821 Elizabeth suffered a severe but unexplained illness that affected her spine and lungs and left her a semi-invalid for the rest of her life. During the 1830’s, she produced her first successful poetry: The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838) was well received and gained its author considerable notice. At about the same time, her health broke down, and she traveled from London to the milder climate of Torquay to recover. During her convalescence, she begged her favorite brother Edward (“Bro”) to visit her in Torquay; while there, he drowned on a sailing excursion. Elizabeth’s grief and guilt were so overwhelming that for the rest of her life she could never speak or write of the event.
Somewhat recovered but still very much an invalid, Elizabeth returned to London in 1841 and plunged into literary work. In 1844 her popular two-volume Poems, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning appeared. One poem in this collection, “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” referred favorably to the work of then little-known poet Robert Browning. He wrote to thank her, and they began a correspondence that led to their first meeting four months later. For over a year they wrote to each other daily (sometimes twice daily). Elizabeth’s father had forbidden any of his children to marry, so Elizabeth and Robert married secretly and left for Italy in 1846. They settled in Florence, in Casa Guidi, where their son Pen was born in 1849 and where they lived for the rest of Elizabeth’s life.
During the 1840’s and 1850’s, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s major works appeared, and her poetic reputation reached its height. Her 1844 Poems, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning contain multiple voices, styles, and subjects. She experiments boldly with form, especially half-rhymes, metrical irregularities, neologisms, compound words, and lacunae. These experiments at once pleased, intrigued, infuriated, and disturbed her contemporary readers. More recently, they have been seen (by Virginia Woolf and others) as formative influences on later poets and harbingers of literary modernism.
In 1850 Browning published a collection of her poetry, including the 1844 poems plus some new material such as the famous Sonnets from the Portuguese, written secretly to her husband during their courtship. These poems are by far her most well known, less for any intrinsic artistic excellence than for their abiding romantic and psychological portrait of developing love. They trace the emotional state of the poet—a thirty-nine-year-old invalid wooed by a younger man—from surprise, reluctance, and confusion to passion, trust, and hope for the future.
In addition to the sonnets, the 1850 Poems includes two poems focused on social issues. “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” is an impassioned first-person poem in which a slave murders her own child, who was conceived as a result of rape by her white master. “The Cry of the Children” protests the inhumane conditions for child laborers in British coal mines and factories. Not only did these poems provoke a powerful response from socially conscious readers, but they also anticipated the overtly political concerns of Browning’s next book of poetry.
Browning’s next book, Casa Guidi Windows (1851), revealed her interest in the politics of the Italian Risorgimento. Casa Guidi Windows is “A Poem, in Two Parts,” the first written in 1848 and filled with the optimism attendant upon the abortive Italian revolution of that year. Part 2 was written in 1851 after the crushing defeat of the patriots at Novara in 1849 and is decidedly more pessimistic. The poem’s confident approach is noteworthy, particularly since it was unusual in Browning’s time for a woman poet to venture onto political terrain, which was considered reserved for men. Casa Guidi Windows is written in a modified terza rima, and some of its vivid ironic characterizations are reminiscent of Robert Browning’s poetry and have led critics to assume that Elizabeth was influenced by her husband.
Throughout the 1850’s, Elizabeth and Robert traveled widely in Europe and visited England three times, in...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
In 1861, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in her husband’s arms in a rented apartment (unfurnished for the sake of economy). She had been born Elizabeth Barrett Moulton in one of the twenty marbled bedrooms of her father’s estate, Coxhoe Hall. Her father had inherited a substantial fortune and the promise of remunerative properties from his family in Jamaica. When Elizabeth was three years old, the family moved to a still larger home, Hope End, in Herefordshire. This was to be her home until the abolition of slavery brought about sharp retrenchments in the Barrett family’s affairs in 1832. After three years at Sidmouth, on the channel coasts, the family moved to London. Elizabeth was twenty-nine. Her family’s congregational Protestantism and its strong support for the Reform Bill of 1832 had already helped to establish the intellectual landmarks of her poetry—Christian idealism and a sharp social conscience. In London, as her weak lungs became a source of chronic anxiety, the dark and reclusive habits that were to lend a fearful realism to her ideals became fixed in her mode of life.
Such anxiety found its consolations in a meditative piety that produced an increasingly intense inwardness in the poet. This fact partly explains why her poems are so commonly reflective, and so rarely narrative or dramatic. Eventually, she even gave up attending chapel services. In 1837, her lungs were racked by a persistent cough. In 1838, she left London for Torquay, hoping the sea air would afford her some relief. When her brother Edward (“Bro”) had concluded his visit there and planned to return to London, Elizabeth pleaded with him to stay. He did so, but in the summer of 1840, as he was boating with friends, a sudden squall capsized the boat, and Bro was drowned. Elizabeth, who had been using laudanum fairly steadily since arriving in Torquay, almost lost her mind from guilt and distress. Macabre visions came to her and prompted in her a sharply balanced ambivalence between a wish to live and a wish to die.
Elizabeth returned to the family home at 50 Wimpole Street in London, more nervous and withdrawn than ever. She rarely descended the stairs and, in the darkened room, came to depend ever more heavily on the morphine, “my amreeta, my elixir,” which dulled her physical and spiritual pains. She called her room a “hermitage,” a “convent,” and a “prison.” The heavy curtains were always drawn. After her marriage, the images of her poems became less abstract and more concrete as she came to participate afresh in the parade of life’s affairs. For readers of her poetry, the Casa Guidi windows of later years seem dramatically open as the colorful banners and the sounds of singing pass by.
In January of 1845, Robert Browning, then an obscure poet, wrote to thank Elizabeth for praising him in a poem she had recently published. She replied to the letter but was not eager to meet him. She had already declined twice to receive calls from the venerable Wordsworth, whom she had met earlier. She did receive Browning several months later, however, and their famous courtship began. Both parties claimed that they had never been in love before, yet Elizabeth did have a history of strong attachments to men. When she had lived at Hope End, her informal tutor in Greek, H. S. Boyd, had become so confidential with her that quarrels with his wife resulted over the time spent with Elizabeth. At Sidmouth, she had formed a friendship with George Hunter, a minister, whose wife was...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Elizabeth Barrett was born on March 6, 1806, the eldest child of Mary Graham Clark and Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett. She spent her childhood at Hope End, an estate owned by her parents, located in Herefordshire, England. She was a bright, intelligent child who grew up with the advantages of living in an upper-middle-class family, advantages made possible by her father’s plantations in Jamaica. According to an essay she wrote when she was fourteen, she claims to have wanted to be a poet from the age of four. Poetry remained her lifelong ambition.
Barrett’s early life revolved around her family. Her...
(The entire section is 1088 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a preeminent poet of the nineteenth century whose work belongs in the mainstream of Western poetic tradition. Her work is more significant and influential than is generally accepted. She is a pivotal writer in the transition from a Romantic to a modern sensibility, appropriating the outlook and perspective of her precursors, adapting them to her own time and situation, and preserving them for the future. Not only is she the first poet in a tradition of female poets, but she has also earned her place in the larger tradition of English poetry, which includes men and women.
(The entire section is 101 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
The most famous woman poet in English and the first of real significance, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an ambitious writer, well aware of the difficulties she would have to face in earning fame as a poet in the masculine world of Victorian letters. She succeeded by employing her considerable poetic gifts in a variety of forms, among them the religious lyric, the ballad, the dramatic monologue, the sonnet, and the verse novel. She dealt directly in her verse with the important subjects of the day, not only with the “woman question” but also with religious, political, and other social issues. She was a vigorous experimenter in poetic technique and form. As a result, she prepared the way for such gifted followers as Emily...
(The entire section is 717 words.)