Authors: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet

March 6, 1806

Coxhoe Hall, County Durham, England

June 29, 1861

Florence, Italy

Biography

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 Brontë and Christina Rossetti. While her Sonnets from the Portuguese has remained her most popular work, it is her masterpiece, the innovative Aurora Leigh, that is the clearest record of her struggle to be recognized for the considerable talent that she was.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

(Library of Congress)

Elizabeth Barrett Moulton was the eldest child of Edward Barrett Moulton, a rich landowner who later changed his surname to Barrett. Born at Coxhoe Hall, County Durham, England, on March 6, 1806, she was brought up in the Malvern Hills, a landscape that appears in a number of her poems. A precocious child, she was a good student of the Greek and Roman classics. In 1820 her father had fifty copies of her youthful epic, The Battle of Marathon, privately printed. She published anonymously An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, a stiff and sterile performance dominated by the influence of Alexander Pope and the classics.

In 1832 the family moved to Sidmouth, Devonshire, where Barrett translated Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. The family then made the important move to London in 1835 and soon took up permanent residence at 50 Wimpole Street. There Barrett made some literary friendships, and her new friends encouraged her to publish her poetry more frequently. The Seraphim, and Other Poems received good notices when it appeared in 1838, but it was not popular. Unfortunately, her increased literary activities proved too much for her, weak lungs having left her a semi-invalid; in 1838 she was forced to go to the sea resort at Torquay for her health. Edward, her favorite brother, stayed with her and when, after a misunderstanding between them, Edward was drowned, Elizabeth was plunged into an extreme grief from which she was slow to recover.

She returned to Wimpole Street in 1841 and tried to forget her sorrow by working on a modernization of Chaucer with William Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt. Poems was praised by the reviewers, and she received flattering letters from Thomas Carlyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Russell Lowell. In 1845 she received a note of praise from Robert Browning, a little-known poet whose work she admired. They continued the correspondence and met that summer. Browning became a frequent visitor at Wimpole Street. Because her father strongly opposed the marriage of any of his children, Elizabeth and Robert had a secret courtship, which was climaxed on September 12, 1846, when the lovers were secretly married. A week later they left for the Continent. Her father refused to see Elizabeth again, and he returned all her letters unopened. He died in 1857.

Settling, for health and economic reasons, in Florence, the Brownings stayed at Casa Guidi, near the Pitti Palace, until Elizabeth’s death. Their only child, a son, was born there in 1849. One day Elizabeth Browning shyly showed her Sonnets from the Portuguese to her husband; he persuaded her to include them in her 1850 volume. A thorough republican, she next wrote Casa Guidi Windows in an attempt to gain English sympathy for the cause of Italian liberty. The Brownings traveled frequently and visited England in 1851, 1855, and 1856. During her last visit Browning wrote Aurora Leigh, a narrative poem that has been compared to a psychological novel. Despite its slow-moving plot, the poem had a success equal almost to that of the Sonnets from the Portuguese. She had put out new editions of her poems in 1853 and 1856, and by now her reputation was firmly established. Her Poems Before Congress received mixed reviews, but they did no damage to her popular fame. When she died in Florence on June 29, 1861, she was one of the best-known of Victorian poets.

Author Works Poetry: The Battle of Marathon, 1820 An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, 1826 The Seraphim, and Other Poems, 1838 Poems, 1844 Poems: New Edition, 1850 (including Sonnets from the Portuguese) Casa Guidi Windows, 1851 Aurora Leigh, 1856 Poems Before Congress, 1860 Last Poems, 1862 Nonfiction: The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1897 The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1898 Diary by E. B. B.: The Unpublished Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1831-1832, 1969 (Philip Kelly and Ronald Hudson, editors) Miscellaneous: Prometheus Bound, Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus: And Miscellaneous Poems, 1833 Bibliography Brown, Sarah Annes. “Paradise Lost and Aurora Leigh.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 37 (Autumn, 1997): 723-40. Brown examines Browning’s epic novel as a stylistic and subjective rewriting of John Milton’s epic. Cooper, Helen. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist. North Carolina UP, 1988. Cooper discusses Browning’s career as an extended effort to bring about a felicitous union of her gender with her art. The book deals cogently with all the major work. Dally, Peter. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Psychological Portrait. Macmillan, 1989. Dally traces Browning’s feelings about her fate, family, marriage, and literary life. Beginning with Browning’s childhood regret that the family fortune grew from the slave trade, Dally records her emotional life through childhood, courtship, marriage, and life in Italy. Contains notes, a select bibliography, and an index. Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Chatto & Windus, 1988. This full-length biography of Browning expands our understanding of her childhood years through hundreds of letters uncovered since the standard works of Dorothy Hewlett (1952) and Gardner Taplin (1957). Forster uses feminist critics in her interpretation of the long poem Aurora Leigh, which is now considered a major work. An essential chronological study. Supplemented by thirty-three illustrations, a chronology, notes, a bibliography, and an index. Hayter, Alethea. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861).” British Writers, Vol. 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981. This useful overview of the life of the poet includes an excellent six-page discussion of Browning’s poetic imagery and style. Hewlett, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 1952. Intending to return Browning to the high esteem given to her in her lifetime and by Robert Browning, Hewlett adds historical and political background to her detailed study of family letters and memorabilia. Includes interesting anecdotes, poem drafts, a playbill from early family theatricals, ten illustrations, references, and an index. Kizer, Carolyn. “Ms. Browning’s Heavy Heart: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Last Poems.” The Paris Review 42, no. 154 (Spring, 2000): 210-15. An insightful discussion of one of Browning’s last poems, “My Heart and I.” With reference to the early drafts of the poem, Kizer documents its progress line by line. Also discusses Robert Browning’s role in the revival of these poems. Leighton, Angela. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Harvester Press, 1986. This valuable study uses feminist theory to revisit the most frequently anthologized poems of Browning and to explore the less well-known works. Topics include the influence of family, the male literary tradition, her sexual isolation, and political opinions. Complemented by notes, a bibliography, and an index. Markus, Julia. Dared and Done. Knopf, 1995. Novelist-turned-literary-historian Markus lifts the veil of misconception that has long concealed the truth about the love and marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. As Markus chronicles the personal and artistic growth of this devoted couple, she insightfully analyzes their social and political milieu and how it shaped their lives and poetry. Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. U of Chicago P, 1989. Part of a series titled Women in Culture and Society, this essential study brings Browning out of the sentimental arena and reveals her as a poet who negotiated her way through fierce gender and class barriers. Eight chapters arranged chronologically focus on her emotional and artistic development. Contains notes, a bibliography, and an index. Stephenson, Glennis. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Poetry of Love. University of Michigan Research Institute, 1989. The linguistic and thematic problems of a woman poet writing about love in a male-dominated poetic tradition forced Browning to invent a feminine rhetoric. Women wrote about love from within a conventional mask. In this study, Barrett Browning is shown to have rejected the mask and dramatized new possibilities in her early ballads as well as in her sonnets and longer poetic works. Includes notes, a bibliography, and an index. Taplin, Gardner. The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. John Murray, 1957. Until Margaret Forster’s 1988 biography, Taplin’s was the standard work on Browning. It filled a major gap in Victorian studies with a comprehensive study of letters and other sources. It is still useful. Twenty chapters give a chronological picture of the poet’s early family life of wealth and comfort, her decision to elope and live in Italy, and her literary success. Contains notes, a bibliography, an index, and ten plates. Tucker, Herbert F. “Aurora Leigh: Epic Solutions to Novel Ends.” Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, edited by Alison Booth, U of Virginia P, 1993. Tucker analyzes Aurora Leigh in light of traditional epic form, stressing its relationship to conventional Victorian fiction and poetry. Wallace, Jennifer. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Knowing Greek.” Essays in Criticism 50, no. 4 (October, 2000): 329-53. Although Victorian women writers were expected to be emotional and sentimental rather than intellectual, Browning was one of the most scholarly woman poets of the nineteenth century. Wallace discusses the way in which Browning broke the stereotypes of women during her time, and the ways in which this affected her writing. Zonana, Joyce. “The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 8 (Fall, 1989): 240-62. In this interesting essay, Zonana considers the problematic subject-object issue surrounding the idea of the poetic muse in Browning’s epic novel. The author explores this idea in relation to previous feminist criticism.

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