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Life Path and First Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

“Books and dreams were what I lived in and domestic life only seemed to buzz gently around, like bees about the grass,”

At a time, when poetry was considered a noble art worthy of a man’s intellectual supremacy, a handful of women poets ventured forth to make their own mark in the 19th century’s History of English Literature. Women were expected to write, if ever, only about love, nature or spirituality, none of which demanded much intellectual fervour. Consequently, when Elizabeth Barrett Browning challenged that very conservative notion of the Victorian society with her dealings of significant social and political scene of the day, – that included war, nationalism, gender equality, industrialisation, slavery, religious controversy, manipulation of power and the strive for freedom on various fronts- she was marked at first as unconventional and combative, but when the quality of her work surfaced, was received with utmost reverence and highest critical esteem among them all.

Early Life and Literary Initiation:

Eldest among 8 brothers and 4 sisters, Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett (nicknamed ‘Ba’) was born on 6th March 1806, in Coxhoe Hall, between the villages of Coxhoe and Kelloe in County Durham, England to Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke.

Elizabeth was blessed with a lavish upbringing amidst a wealthy family, her father being an extensive sugar-plantation owner in Jamaica and the proprietor of “Hope End”, a 500 acres land, in Herefordshire between the market town of Ledbury and the Mavern Hills. Mr. Barrett turned their old house of Georgian architecture into stables and set up, for them, an opulent mansion adorned with ornate Turkish designs, which his wife couldn’t help comparing with that of the fairy tales of Arabian Nights.

Elizabeth spent her early days riding her pony in the lanes around the Barrett estate, which constituted of farmers’ cottages, gardens, woodlands, ponds, carriage roads, and had an overall feel of serenity to it. She would go out for walks and picnics to the countryside with her siblings and meet other county families for tea. The Barrett children also participated in home produced theatrical acts. Elizabeth, however, unlike her other siblings, preferred the company of her books over socialising, and would immerse herself in that luxury whenever she could free herself from the social obligations.

She belonged to an unfortunate time when the need for educating women was still being debated upon, not that it could stop her from acquiring the knowledge she desired; Elizabeth received education at home from her oldest brother, Daniel McSwiney, and an array of jewel books were at the constant disposal of her never-quenching thirst for reading. Consequently, before crossing the threshold of age 10, she had read the histories of England, Greece and Rome; several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Othello and The Tempest; portions of Pope’s Homeric Translations; and passages from Paradise Lost. At an autobiographical sketch written when she was 14, she said that at 11 she “felt the most ardent desire to understand the learned languages”. Except for some lessons on Greek and Latin from a tutor who came to teach her brother, she was, as spoken of later by Robert Browning, “self-taught in almost every respect”. Having mastered the languages it took her but a few years to go through the works of noted Greek and Latin authors, the Greek Christian fathers, several plays by Racine and Moliere, as well as a portion of Dante’s Inferno- all in their original languages. Meanwhile she also wrapped her mind around enough Hebrew to read and understand the entire of the Old Testament.

The words possessed her at the very tender age of four and thus began her literary journey. At age six, she received from her father, for “some lines on virtue penned with great care”, a ten-shilling note addressed to “the Poet-Laureate of Hope End”. At twelve she presented to her family her own Homeric epic in four books of rhyming couplet, “The Battle of Marathon”, and it was privately printed by her proud father, in 1820. Elizabeth later on commented on this composition of hers saying that it was “Pope’s Homer done over again, or rather undone”. It is now considered as one of her rarest works, with only a handful copies known to exist. Her mother’s compilation of her poetry of this time, as “Poems by Elizabeth B. Barrett”, forms one of the largest collections extant of juvenilia by any English writer. Mary Russell Mitford, a contemporary writer who later on became a close friend, described young Elizabeth of this age, as having “a slight delicate figure, with a shower of curls falling on each side of a most expressive face; large, tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, and a smile like a sunbeam”.

Ailments, Uprooting and Tragedies

It is said that Elizabeth met an accident at 15 while saddling her pony and suffered grave head and spinal injury, the effect of which haunted her physic for the rest of her life along with lung problems that developed later in her life, which diagnosed by modern science leads to Tuberculosis. She was prescribed laudanum (an opium concoction) followed by morphine, which made her dependent to them from an early age to much of adulthood, leading to the frailty of her health in the long run. Alethea Hayter, a biographer, has suggested this dependence on drugs as resulting in her vivid imagination and the poetry it produced.

Elizabeth lost her mother in 1828 and was, along with her siblings, taken under the care of her aunt. In 1831 her Grandma passed away, and shortly afterwards her father faced lawsuit and the abolition of slavery, which in turn led him to sell “Hope End”. Although the family never hit rock bottom in terms of financial strength, they did suffer a great deal of financial loss with the added embarrassment of having to sell their beloved estate. The eleven children and their father then moved to Sidmouth, on the southern coast of Devonshire, and lived there for a while.

They spent three years shifting between several rented houses in the coastal area, and finally settled in the 50 Wimpole Street of London, in 1835. It took Elizabeth a while to sync with the concrete, bustling city life while she missed the open sky, fresh sea breeze and the sound of the waves; but it wasn’t long before she saw the charm of living in a metropolis, which was, moreover, a buzzing ground of literary and artistic activities. There she became completely engrossed in the world of literature and consecutively produced some of her best works. Unfortunately the weakness of her lungs took a heavy toll on her health and she was advised to leave the city life for the time being. Torquay, on the south coast of Devonshire, was pin-pointed, and there she remained under constant care of physicians along with family members who took turns to keep her company.

In February, 1840, her brother, Samuel, died of a terrible fever; and shortly after that, her favourite brother, Edward (whom she lovingly called “bro”), who had been with her constantly at Torquay, was snatched away from her by the ruthless sea. Gravely traumatised she gave in to this grief, never being able to talk about it even to those who were her closest. Elizabeth returned to Wimpole Street in 1841.

Works and Literary Acquaintances

The very first publication of her works was a slender volume entitled An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1820), released in anonymity. Intrigued by her literary intellect, Hugh Stuart Boyd, a blind, middle-aged dilettante scholar living not far from Elizabeth, approached her with an intention of becoming familiar with a woman of such poetic genius. Boyd had published numerous volumes of translations from the Greek patristic writings at his own expense; He used to share his works with her and often invited her to his place, where he lived with his wife and daughter. Her pent up starvation for an intellectual companionship met its satiation in these meetings with Boyd, and she found herself entering into a strong bond of friendship. Boyd’s frequent presence helped her rekindle her love for Greek literature, and during this period, she filled her reading soul going through a lot of classical Greek literature as Homer, Pindar, the Tragedians, Aristophanes, and passages from Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Xenophon, as well as the Greek Christian Fathers Boyd had translated.

While at Sidmouth, she anonymously published Prometheus Bound (translated from Aeschylus’s Greek one) and Miscellaneous Poems. She retranslated the Prometheus Bound in 1850, as the former one wasn’t well received; this new version was much more promising and held a lot of improvements, which spoke a lot about her maturing as a poet through time and dedicated nurturing of her culture.

The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), was the first publication with the poet’s name on the cover, or in her own words, “the first utterance of my own individuality”. This work of hers opened doors to allow the flood of praise from both England and America; her place as a poet was lifted up by the audience who considered her a promising young poet of prodigious capability.

The poem Isobel’s Child, with its portrayal of a dying baby cradled all night in his mother’s arms, became a favourite among critics and general public alike. The well-known critic, John Wilson (“Christopher North”), expressed his appreciation saying that there was a beauty in all her poems and that some were “altogether beautiful”.

During her time in London she was introduced to literary legends as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle, by her distant cousin and lifelong friend, John Kenyon. She corresponded with other writers and continued to write, creating “The Romaunt of Margaret”, “The Romaunt of the Page”, “The Poet’s Vow”, for numerous magazines and periodicals.

At the time when she returned Wimpole Street from Torquay, almost paralysed with grief and illness, she felt like her youth has left her and all there was to look forward to was lifelong invalidism and home arrest. To silence her demons with the harmony of her world, she decorated her room with busts of Homer and Chaucer and later with engravings of Browning (before being an acquaintance), Tennyson, Carlyle, Harriet Martineau and Wordsworth, and mostly stayed in her room. Relieved of all household burdens unlike other women of her time, owing to her illness, she enjoyed the luxury of devoting herself completely to literature; she read English and French fiction and memoirs, wrote letters, essays and poetry. She wasn’t comfortable meeting strangers and only two people other than her family were allowed to visit her in her room- John Kenyon and Mary Mitford. The kind affection of Mary Mitford brought a new companion in her life with a spaniel named Flush; her feelings towards Flush and how he made her life a little better are accounted in the poems ‘Flush or Faunus’ and ‘To Flush, My Dog’, wherein she has immortalised their bond. Virginia Woolf later produced a novel named ‘Flush: a Biography’ inspired by and based on him.

The period of 1841 to 1844 was the spring season of Elizabeth’s literary career. Among all the other flowers in her lush garden, the most notable one was ‘The Cry of the Children’, published in 1842 for Blackwood’s. Though she belonged to a different social strata and was far removed from the pathos of the poem’s subject, yet her description of the little children working in mines and toiling away their childhood to early deaths, their thoughts, feelings and numbness towards positivity, gives ample evidence of her ardent concern for basic human rights.

1844 marked the publishing of two volumes of ‘Poems’, which comprised of ‘A Drama of Exile’, ‘A Vision of Poets’ and ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’ and two substantial critical essays for 1842 issues of The Athenaeum; of them, the most loved short poem was Lady Geraldine’s Courtship; A Romance of the Age. Edgar Allan Poe was mesmerised by this poem to such an extent that he borrowed the poem’s meter for his The Raven, and has further extended his praise in the January 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, saying that “her poetic inspiration is the highest- we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself.” Elizabeth, in return, expressed her gratitude by praising The Raven. Furthermore, Poe dedicated his 1845 collection The Raven and Other poems to her, terming her “the noblest of her sex”.

The Arrival of Love and Heightened Inspiration

Lady Geraldine’s Courtship was the poem that ushered love in her life, for it was after reading it that Robert Browning wrote a letter to Elizabeth in January 1845, which read, “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett”, and this became the first of all those letters that were to be exchanged between the two. At that time there was a dry spell cast upon Browning’s works and he was yet to achieve his well deserved fame. His parents and sister adored him despite the lack of success in his career, which made him dependent upon his father as none of his publications could raise the expense of the investment behind them. Where he lacked in success unlike Elizabeth, his bountiful energy and good health were in contrast with her feebleness; Browning always dressed in contemporary fashion and enjoyed going to parties where he could spend time with the noted literary figures.

On May 20th, 1845, John Kenyon arranged for the duo to meet in her room and, thus encouraged one of the strongest literary courtships. Initially Elizabeth was of the notion that their love, if progressed will bring nothing but regret to Browning, as she was weak and robbed of youthful radiance and vigour. But after being assured of his passionate affection towards her, she reciprocates the feeling by writing for him one of her most appreciated sonnet, ‘How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways’. Both were, apparently, a complement to each other and had the influence enough to bring out the best in the other. Browning’s ‘Men and Women’ and Barrett’s ‘Aurora Leigh’ and ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ were products of their inspiration to one another.

In the words of critics, “Until her relationship with Robert Browning began in 1845, Barrett’s willingness to engage in public discourse about social issues and about aesthetic issues in poetry, which had been so strong in her youth, gradually diminished, as did her physical health. As an intellectual presence and a physical being, she was becoming a shadow of herself”. Their marriage had to be arranged secretively as it was against Mr. Barrett’s wishes, who wanted all his children to be solely dependent on him and never to marry; and so it did, on 12 September 1846 at St. Marylebone Parish Church, not far from the Barrett’s house. And soon after they fled to Italy, hoping for a warmer climate where Elizabeth can be healed with time. They were a celebrated couple and were respected by all. Slowly but gradually, Elizabeth started regaining her strength; at the age of 43, between four miscarriages, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, whom they lovingly nicknamed Pen.

In the summer of 1849, Elizabeth showed Robert the forty-four sonnets that she had hitherto kept hidden from him. Overwhelmed with their aesthetics, he encouraged her to include them in her forthcoming edition of Poems (1850). The sonnets, on publication, touched many hearts like that of Robert, and gained critical acceptance as well. Elizabeth had, thereby, reached to such a pinnacle in the literary world, that it was she who was put up as a candidate, against Tennyson, for the title of ‘poet-laureate’ after the demise of Wordsworth in 1850.

After suffering the final blow of severe cough, cold and sore throat, Elizabeth’s body finally succumbed in her husband’s arms in the morning of 29th June. Her body remains buried in the Protestant English Cemetery of Florence. The people of Casa Guidi mourned gravely and shops were closed in her honour on the 1st of July. Robert said that she died “smiling, happily, and with a face like a girl’s… Her last word was… “Beautiful””.

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