Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806-1861
English poet and translator.
See also Aurora Leigh Literary Criticism and Aurora Leigh Poetry Criticism.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose accomplishments were such that she was for a time considered for the post of Britain's poet laureate, is best remembered for her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), among the most beautiful love cycles in English literature. Beloved by many readers, her poetry has nevertheless been consistently criticized for technical carelessness; recent critics, however, contend that her unconventional rhymes and loose diction were neither negligent nor haphazard, but deliberate experiments by a conscientious student of prosody. But scholars generally concur that Browning's poetry is flawed by her emphasis on passionate emotion over clear expression, and most agree that she achieved her highest poetic expression in the sonnet, whose formal structure restrained her effusiveness.
The oldest of eleven children, Elizabeth Barrett was raised by an overbearing father who forbade his daughters to marry. However, he encouraged their scholastic achievement and was so proud of Elizabeth's writing ability that he privately published her first book of poetry, The Battle of Marathon, in 1820. Around this time, Elizabeth injured her spine in a riding accident and seemed doomed to a life of infirmity and confinement. The drowning death several years later of her favorite brother sent her into a deep depression that made her condition worse. Despite these adversities, she continued to study and write. In 1826 she published An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, followed by a translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound in 1833, both of which appeared anonymously; and in 1838, she published The Seraphim, and Other Poems, her first signed volume. All three attracted much favorable attention, and she was regarded as a serious and talented poet. From her sickroom in the family home on Wimpole Street in London, Elizabeth dedicated herself to a literary life, receiving special guests, notably Mary Russell Mitford, and corresponding frequently with various literati, among them Edgar Allan Poe, James Russell Lowell, and Thomas Carlyle, all of whom sent flattering appraisals of her poetry.
Robert Browning joined these correspondents after Elizabeth admiringly mentioned his name in a poem entitled "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." Deeply moved by this tribute from a recognized poet, he responded in a letter, "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett," and a few lines later, "I love you, too." Robert Browning became a frequent visitor to Wimpole Street. In 1846, ignoring Elizabeth's poor health and the disapprobation of her father, the poets eloped to Italy and settled in Pisa. Although she remained somewhat frail, Barrett Browning was invigorated by her love for her husband and for her adopted homeland, and began writing with a new passion, completing the Poems of 1844, Sonnets from the Portuguese, and Aurora Leigh (1856), among other works. Barrett Browning's triumphant emergence from the sick room, in addition to her son's birth in 1849 and the stimulating presence of her husband, inspired in her a creative energy that did not wane until her death at age fifty-five.
Although Barrett Browning's earlier works attracted some favorable attention, The Seraphim, and Other Poems was her first work to draw a wide readership. This early period was followed by the prolonged composition of Poems and Sonnets from the Portuguese, which records the growth of love between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. She expressed her political passion for Italian liberal causes in Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860), but critics generally dismiss this fervent verse as reckless and overly emotional. Barrett Browning made a gentler statement in Aurora Leigh, an ambitious novel in blank verse; but, while praising the power of many passages, critics have pointed out the didacticism of her social criticism. Nevertheless, Aurora Leigh is widely read and admired and remains one of Barrett Browning's most characteristic creations, embodying both her strengths and weaknesses.
In the lavish eulogies that appeared at the time of her death, Barrett Browning was called England's greatest woman poet. While her reputation has faltered somewhat over the years, she is still revered as a sonneteer and also considered a literary heroine. It has been suggested, in fact, that the overpowering Browning legend—the brilliant invalid fleeing from tyrannical father to poet-lover—has distracted critics from the merits of her work. Her unorthodox rhyme and diction, often scorned, have been cited as daring experiments that prefigured the techniques of George Meredith, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, through them, modern poets. Her candid treatment of political and social issues, too, was bold for her time. While her talent is perhaps best revealed within the confines of the sonnet, there is much to be appreciated in Browning's unrestrained poetic imagination.