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Elizabeth returned to the family home at 50 Wimpole Street in London, more nervous and withdrawn than ever.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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