Last reviewed: June 2018
March 6, 1806
Coxhoe Hall, County Durham, England
June 29, 1861
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
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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.