Elizabeth Barrett Browning

During her life time, the writing of Elizabeth Barrett Browning was more admired in England and the USA, than her husband's, Robert Browning. It eventually fell out of fashion, whatever that means, possibly because she observed and wrote reality as a woman. This has never always been encouraged, nor always enthusiastically read. Yet her work is still appreciated, perhaps even more so today, and this is just as well.
For she was far more intent in presenting the truth as she perceived it, than preoccupied with style, vogue or ambition, which would include the self-betrayal of trying to please and impress, as seems to be the case with other writers and poets of the nineteenth century.
As the realities of her epoch such as the subversive role expected of women in general, are still reflected today in various parts of the world, this might also re-arouse appreciation of her work.
It's probable that writers such as Peacock, Hugo and Dickens would have fully agreed with her.

She benefited from an unconventional, home education for a woman of her time. She studied Greek and Latin, history and philosophy, and she read a great deal of literature. She also began to write at a very early age, and was encouraged to do so. Her first volume of poems was published when she was only thirteen. She was able to read Virgil in original Latin, and also loved to read Shakespeare, Milton and Dante.
After reading Mary Wolletonescraft Vindications of the Rights of Women (1792) Barrett Browning became a firm supporter of her ideas.

The family were wealthy land owners. Several generations of the Barretts lived in Jamaica developing and exploiting sugar plantations. The family had mills, glassworks and means to assure trade between Jamaica and Newcastle.
In spite of Elizabeth's love and respect for her father, he appears to have been a tyrant, for he denied marriage to all of his eleven children. To make things worse, Elizabeth suffered from constant ill health. She therefore lived a life of a well-read invalid in virtual seclusion, until she reached the age of thirty-nine.

Robert Browning was therefore her rescuer hero. He greatly admired her work, and after having had the opportunity of visiting her, soon wrote of his love to her : 'I do as I say, love these books with all my heart- and I love you too.'
The courtship led to their secret marriage in 1846. After a honeymoon in Paris they eloped to Italy where Elizabeth's health improved enough for her to have a son. She was totally devoted to Pen. In Italy she soon became involved in nationalist politics, which is also reflected in the poems that she was inspired to write, such as Poems before Congress (1860).

She had always been very sensitive to all contemporary causes and social strife, naturally including slavery (that her own family and their ancestors benefited from in Jamaica).
The Cry of the Children (1843) is an example regarding the Victorian exploitation of young children. It shows the sincerity of her sentiments, and the accuracy of her observations.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was also known for her Sonnets from the Portuguese, a record of her love to Robert Browning in forty-four sonnets presented under the veil of a translation from Portuguese.

Sad news from England contributed in making her health fatally worse however.
She died in the arms of Robert Browning, and her last word was- "Beautiful"..
He recorded that she died 'smilingly, happily, with a face like a girls...'
Elizabeth was buried in the English Protestant Cemetery of Florence. Her death caused a considerable stir of sadness, and there were various public manifestations of respect in the regions of Italy where she had made such an impression.

Of all her works perhaps it was Aurora Leigh (1857) that attracted the most attention, both favourable and unfavourable. Ruskin loved it. He even went as far as to affirm that in his view it was the greatest poem written in English. But critics faulted its poetry as well as its morality.

The work is a 'poem novel', the story of a young half Italian, half English girl who aspires to be a writer. After the death of her Tuscan mother (when Aurora was four) and her English father (when she was thirteen) she has to leave Italy to go and live in England with a tight lipped aunt, who insists that she be fittingly raised to become a 'correct and obedient' young lady in keeping with the corseted and hypocritical Victorian society. It's full of sharp observations and amusing irony that should make it timeless, even though it naturally alludes to its own particular era.

Unlike other poets of her time, such as Tennyson, inspired by ancient heroic legends, (eg. Idylls of the King) Barret Browning was aware of the richness of her own epoch, and thus convinced of the wealth of material to produce even epic poetry from it.
Time seems to have proved her right. Her observation- wrong thoughts make poor poems, (from Aurora Leigh, Book 5) is a timeless assertion in itself.

Here's a selected extract from Aurora Leigh, Book 1, (The Feminine Education of Aurora Leigh) followed by an extract from Book 5, (Poets and the Present Age).

I danced the polka and Cellarius,°
Spun glass, stuffed birds, and modelled flowers in wax,
Because she liked accomplishments in girls.
I read a score of books on womanhood
To prove, if women do not think at all,
They may teach thinking (to a maiden aunt
Or else the author), -books that boldly assert
Their right of comprehending husband's talk
When not too deep, and even of answering
With pretty "may it please you," or "so it is,"-
Their rapid insight and fine aptitude,
Particular worth and general missionariness,
As long as they keep quiet by the fire
And never say "no" when the world says "ay,"
For that is fatal, -their angelic reach
Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn,
And fatten household sinners, -their, in brief,
Potential faculty in everything
Of abdicating power in it: she owned
She liked a woman to be womanly,
And English women, she thanked God and sighed
(Some people always sigh in thanking God),
Were models to the universe. And last
I learnt cross-stitch,¹ because she did not like
To see me wear the night with empty hands
A-doing nothing. So my shepherdess
Was something after all (the pastoral saints
Be praised for't), leaning lovelorn with pink eyes
To match her shoes, when I mistook the silks;
Her head uncrushed by that round weight of hat
So strangely similar to the tortoise shell
Which slew the tragic poet.²
                                              By the way,
The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you're weary- or a stool
To stumble over and vex you..."curse that stool!"
Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean
And sleep, and dream of something we are not
But would be for your sake. Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this- that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.
                                              In looking down
Those years of education (to return)
I wonder if Brinvilliers suffered more
In the water torture³... flood succeeding flood
To drench the incapable throat and split the veins...
Than I did. Certain of your feebler souls
Go out in such a process; many pine
To a sick, inodorous light; my own endured:
I had relations in the Unseen, and drew
The elemental nutriment and heat
From nature, as earth feels the sun at nights,
Or a babe sucks surely in the dark.
I kept the life thrust on me, on the outside
Of the inner life with all its ample room
For heart and lungs, for will and intellect,
Inviolable by conventions. God,
I thank thee for that grace of thine!
                                                     At first
I felt no life which was not patience, -did
The thing she bade me, without heed to a thing
Beyond it, sat in just the chair she placed,
With back against the window, to exclude
The sight of the great lime-tree on the lawn,
Which seemed to have come on purpose from the woods
To bring a message, -ay, and walked
Demurely in her carpeted low rooms,
As if I should not, harkening my own steps,
Misdoubt I was alive. I read her books,
Was civil to her cousin, Romney Leigh,
Gave ear to her vicar, tea to her visitors,
And heard them whisper, whan I changed the cup
(I blushed for joy at that), - "The Italian child,
For all her blue eyes and her quiet ways,
Thrives ill in England: she is paler yet
Than when we came the last time; she will die."

°A form of walse.
¹ Needlepoint, crochet.
²Aeschylus died when his bald head was taken for a stone by an eagle who dropped a tortoise shell on it to break it.
³ The Marquise de Brinvilliers condemned to death in 1676, was first tortured by forcing water down her throat.

'(...)                         Ay, but every age
Appears to souls who live in't (ask Carlyle)°
Most unheroic. Ours, for instance, ours:
The thinkers scout it, and the poets abound
Who scorn to touch it with a finger-tip:
A pewter age,² -mixed metal; silver-washed;
An age of scum, spooned off the richer past,
An age of patches for old gaberdines,
An age of mere transition,³ meaning nought
Except that what succeeds must shame it quite
If God please. That's wrong thinking, to my mind,
And wrong thoughts make poor poems.                                                    
                                                  Every age,
Through being beheld too close, is ill-discerned
By those who have not lived past it. We'll suppose
Mount Athos carved, as Alexander schemed,
To some colossal statue of a man.°
The peasants, gathering brushwood in his ear,
Had guessed as little as the browsing goats
Of form or feature of humanity
Up there, -in fact, had travelled five miles off
Or ere the giant image broke on them,
Full human profile, nose and chin distinct,
Mouth, muttering rhymes of silence up the sky
And fed at evening with the blood of suns;
Grand torso, -hand, that flung perpetually
The largest of silver river down
To all the country pastures. "Tis even thus
With times we live in, -evermore too great
To be apprehended near."
                                         But poets should
Exert a double vision; should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensively
As if afar they took their point of sight,
And distant things as intimately deep
As if they touched them. Let us strive for this.
I do distrust the poet who discerns
No character or glory in his times,
And trundles back his soul five hundred years,
Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court,
To sing -oh, not of a lizard or a toad
Alive i' the ditch there, -'twere excusable,
But of some black chief, half knight, half sheep-lifter,
Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen,
As dead as must be, for the greater part,
The poems made on their chivalric bones;
And that's no wonder: death inherits death.

Nay, if there's room for poets in this world
A little overgrown (I think there is),
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne's, -this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncevalles.
To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce,
Cry out for togas and the picturesque,
Is fatal, -foolish too. King Arthur's self
Was commonplace to Lady Guenever;
And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat
As Fleet Street to our poets.
                                            Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
"Behold, -behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating: this is living art,
Which thus presents and thus records true life."


° In his Hero's and Hero-Worship Carlyle supports the idea that there should be a revision of how one perceives heroism in the present day and age.
² According to convention, the decline through the ages was represented by metals of decreasing value.
³ John Stuart Mill regarded his present age as 'an age of transition'- The Spirit of the Age (1831).
° It's said that the sculptor, Dionocrates, suggested to Alexandra, to have Mount Athos carved into an enormous statue of a conqueror. He would have a city in his left hand, and his right hand would hold a basin to collect all the water to irrigate the lands below.
Text © Mirino. Sources include the Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 2, and Wikipedia, with thanks. Top portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from the 1871 sepia engraving after a photograph taken in 1859 (tinted © by Mirino for this article). Portrait of Robert Browning by Michele Gordigiani, oil on canvas (1858) National Portrait Gallery, London. Tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Cimitero degli Inglesi, Florence. Photograph by Lucarelli, with thanks. Thanks also to Wikimedia Commons. July, 2012

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