Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) was a significant Victorian poet whose work was marked by bold thematic range, stylistic innovation, and empathy for victims of social injustice.

The eldest of eleven children in a wealthy landed family, Elizabeth Barrett was born in 1806, and lived until she was twenty at her family’s country estate in Herefordshire. A vigorous autodidact, she taught herself Greek, composed poems at eight, and at thirteen wrote “The Battle of Marathon,” a privately printed Homeric epic in four books. An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems appeared anonymously in 1826. A riding accident injured her spine when she was fifteen, and a ruptured blood vessel further limited her activities at twenty-two. The family suffered financial reversals after 1832, in part as a result of the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, and they relocated first to Sidmouth and then to London. In 1833, Barrett published a translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, and in 1838 The Seraphim and Other Poems, her first signed volume and a popular success. The Seraphim resembles Tennyson’s 1832 Poems in its fluid versification, exotic settings, and high valuation of the poet’s social role. Its rewriting of Christian myth and celebration of the love of mother for child (“The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus,” “Isobel’s Child”) anticipate aspects of her later work.

Barrett’s favorite brother Edward drowned off Torquay on the Devonshire coast in 1840. She remained in seclusion on her return to London, but continued to write and publish, and her 1844 Poems established her among the foremost poets of her generation. Its opening work, “A Drama of Exile,” inverts biblical and Miltonic accounts of the fall, and casts Eve as a redemptress, whose noble spirit and future motherhood foreshadow later human salvation. The 1844 Poems also included several ballads, among them “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”; a tribute to George Sand; and “The Cry of the Children,” a denunciation of child labor.

Her correspondence with Robert Browning began the next year; she was then almost forty, and he was an impecunious thirty-three year old author of three little-read volumes of poetry. In defiance of her father, she secretly married Browning and eloped to Florence, Italy. They lived there for the next fifteen years, and she bore a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, in 1849.

Her next volume of Poems appeared in 1850, and included “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” a painfully empathetic inversion of the theme of mother-love which had first appeared in the U. S. abolitionist publication The Liberty Bell, and the widely admired Sonnets from the Portuguese, written during her courtship. Her chronicle of the benign effects of growing love influenced several other Victorian sonnet sequences, including D. G. Rossetti’s “The House of Life” and Christina Rossetti’s “Monna Innominata.”

Barrett Browning’s political sympathies deepened in Casa Guidi Windows (1850), which mourns the repression of Italian nationalism by Pope Pius IX and Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, and the blending of these with her feminist views appears in Aurora Leigh (1857), which she considered “the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered.” In this verse-novel, she mixed her characteristic idealism with wit, sarcasm, and incisive social analysis, qualities often absent in early Victorian poetry. Aurora Leigh traces the development of its eponymous heroine, named after George Sand (Aurore Dupin), from an orphaned childhood in Italy and England, through rejection of a complacent marriage proposal by her cousin Romney, to her eventual struggles to establish herself as an independent poet in London. She describes with special asperity the inanities of middle-class female education of the time, and Romney’s condescending if conventional expectation that Aurora will become his “helpmeet.”

As Aurora becomes aware of some of the more serious social grievances of her time, she notes especially the callous indifference of most members of her class to the poor. Romney, to his credit, has become a social reformer and befriended a seamstress, Miriam, who is later abducted and sold into prostitution. Aurora searches for the absent Miriam and finds her in Paris, and the two women move together to Italy, where they live with Miriam’s son. At the poem’s end Romney reappears in Florence, defeated in his efforts at reform and physically blinded, but spiritually enlightened by what he has experienced. He offers to help Aurora work toward the new social order she envisions, and they finally marry. Aurora Leigh is remarkable for its embodiment of female archetypes, scathing critique of bourgeois marriage and heedless wealth, sympathetic portrayal of the working-class Miriam, and direct examination of the facts of prostitution and rape. Above all, however, it is distinguished by its final celebration of an explicitly egalitarian marriage. Despite its apparent iconoclasm, Aurora Leigh was widely read and admired, and went through nineteen editions by 1885.

Barrett Browning’s last works before her early death were Poems Before Congress (1860), and Posthumous Poems (1862). These include poetic treatments of slavery (“A Curse for a Nation”), seduction (“Lord Walter’s Wife”), art (“A Musical Instrument”), and the human cost of war (“Mother and Poet”). She succumbed to an unexpectedly severe respiratory infection in June 1861, and was buried in Florence.

After a half-century of critical neglect, in recent decades the lyricism, iconoclasm, and stylistic innovation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry have regained the serious attention they amply merit.

Adapted and revised from Victorian Britain, ed. Sally Mitchell, Garland Publishing.