Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806-1861

Biographical note

Poetess, was the daughter of Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, who assumed the last name on succeeding to the estates of his grandfather in Jamaica. She was born at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, but spent her youth at Hope End, near Great Malvern. While still a child she showed her gift, and her father published 50 copies of a juvenile epic, on the Battle of Marathon. She was educated at home, but owed her profound knowledge of Greek and much mental stimulus to her early friendship with the blind scholar, Hugh Stuart Boyd, who was a neighbour. At the age of 15 she met with an injury to her spine which confined her to a recumbent position for several years, and from the effects of which she never fully recovered. In 1826 she published anonymously An Essay on Mind and Other Poems. Shortly afterwards the abolition of slavery, of which he had been a disinterested supporter, considerably reduced Mr. B.’s means: he accordingly disposed of his estate and removed with his family first to Sidmouth and afterwards to London. At the former Miss B. wrote Prometheus Bound (1835). After her removal to London she fell into delicate health, her lungs being threatened. This did not, however, interfere with her literary labours, and she contributed to various periodicals The Romaunt of Margaret, The Romaunt of the Page, The Poet’s Vow, and other pieces. In 1838 appeared The Seraphim and Other Poems (including “Cowper’s Grave.”) Shortly thereafter the death, by drowning, of her favourite brother gave a serious shock to her already fragile health, and for a time she hovered between life and death. Eventually, however, she regained strength, and meanwhile her fame was growing. The published about 1841 of The Cry of the Children gave it a great impulse, and about the same time she contributed some critical papers in prose to R.H. Horne’s New Spirit of the Age. In 1844 she published two vols. of Poems, which comprised “The Drama of Exile,” “Vision of Poets,” and “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship.”

In 1845 she met for the first time her future husband, Robert Browning. Their courtship and marriage, owing to her delicate health and the extraordinary objections entertained by Mr. Barrett to the marriage of any of his children, were carried out under somewhat peculiar and romantic circumstances. After a private marriage and a secret departure from her home, she accompanied her husband to Italy, which became her home almost continuously until her death, and with the political aspirations of which she and her husband both thoroughly identified themselves. The union proved one of unalloyed happiness to both, though it was never forgiven by Mr. Barrett. In her new circumstances her strength greatly increased. Her husband and she settled in Florence, and there she wrote Casa Guidi Windows (1851) — by many considered her strongest work — under the inspiration of the Tuscan struggle for liberty. Aurora Leigh, her largest, and perhaps the most popular of her longer poems, appeared in 1856. In 1850 The Sonnets from the Portuguese — the history of her own love-story, thinly disguised by its title — had appeared. In 1860 she issued a collected ed. of her poems under the title, Poems before Congress. Soon thereafter her health underwent a change for the worse; she gradually lost strength, and died on June 29, 1861. She is generally considered the greatest of English poetesses. Her works are full of tender and delicate, but also of strong and deep, thought. Her own sufferings, combined with her moral and intellectual strength, made her the champion of the suffering and oppressed wherever she found them. Her gift was essentially lyrical, though much of her work was not so in form. Her weak points are the lack of compression, an occasional somewhat obtrusive mannerism, and frequent failure both in metre and rhyme. Though not nearly the equal of her husband in force of intellect and the higher qualities of the poet, her works had, as might be expected on a comparison of their respective subjects and styles, a much earlier and wider acceptance with the general public. Mrs. Browning was a woman of singular nobility and charm, and though not beautiful, was remarkably attractive. Miss Mitford thus describes her as a young woman: “A slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on each side of a most expressive face; large, tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, and a smile like a sunbeam.”

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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