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Barrett Browning, Elizabeth

Category: Poet

It may strike you as strange that I who have had no pain—no acute suffering to keep down from its angles—should need opium in any shape. But I have had restlessness till it made me almost mad . . . as if one’s life, instead of giving movement to the body, were imprisoned undiminished within it, and beating and fluttering impotently to get out, at all the doors and windows. So the medical people gave me opium—a preparation of it, called morphine, and ether—and ever since I have been calling it my amreeta . . . my elixir. 
—      Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1837

Elizabeth Barrett Browning ( 1806 – 1861) was one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian era. Her poetry was widely popular in both England and the United States during her lifetime. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband, Robert Browning, shortly after her death aged only 55.

She grew up in extremely wealthy surroundings.   In 1809, her father bought Hope End, a 500-acre estate near the Malvern Hills in Ledbury, Herefordshire, where Elizabeth spent her childhood.  She was educated at home and attended lessons with her oldest brother Edward with a tutor.  This is very relevant because without her father's wealth she would have had little or no chance of any education.  Girls in those days did not receive anything like the education of boys.  Anyone who wonders why there are so few women 'geniuses' might be better to consider the probability that there were always plenty of potential women geniuses, who were never given the opportunity to be one.

As Elizabeth Barrett Browning says above in the quote, her main problem throughout life was that she was a prodigy,  - a studious, brainy, brilliant, precocious prodigy with an intellect the size of a bus, but a spiritual hankering the size of an elephant.  Luckily her father sounds like he was a caring helpful Dad who recognised she needed something other than a tatting needle to keep her happy.

At age six she was reading novels, at eight she was 'entranced' [for heaven's sake] by Pope's translations of Homer.  Elizabeth's first known poem was written at the age of six or eight.  Now I wrote poems when I was 8 too, with titles like 'love dog' and 'chocolate for ever'.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning's first poem was called, "On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man".  I'm not sure we would have hit it off.

She studied Greek at ten.  She wrote her own Homeric epic The Battle of Marathon shortly after. Her mother compiled early efforts of the child's poetry into collections of "Poems by Elizabeth B. Barrett". Her father called her the 'Poet Laureate of Hope End’ and encouraged her work. The result is one of the largest collections of juvenilia of any English writer. On her 14th birthday, her father gave her a birthday present  of 50 printed copies of her epic. She “went on to delight in reading Virgil in the original Latin”. She devoured Shakespeare and Milton.

By 1821 – aged 15 - she had read Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and  'become a passionate supporter of Wollstonecraft's ideas'.  At age 15, I had only just stopped reading the Famous Five and was wallowing in the delight of being able to wear stockings and suspenders for the first time.

Her first independent publication was "Stanzas Excited by Reflections on the Present State of Greece" in The New Monthly Magazine of May 1821 – also aged 15.  This was followed in the same publication two months later by "Thoughts Awakened by Contemplating a Piece of the Palm which Grows on the Summit of the Acropolis at Athens".  Her first collection of poems, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, was published in 1826, aged 20,  and reflected her passion for Byron and Greek politics.  When I was twenty I had already had one proposal of marriage and received my second [I didn’t marry either of them].  My virginity had been lost fairly irretrievably, way back when.

And now comes the problem of her life “ The child's intellectual fascination with the classics and metaphysics was reflected in a religious intensity which she later described as "not the deep persuasion of the mild Christian, but the wild visions of an enthusiast".

People with an intellect the size of a double decker bus and the propensity to use it, do not get spiritual experiences and are left in a cold, lonely empty, reasoning, clever world hankering after they know not what, but something they know – because they are bright – is 'better'.  We had people in my class at school like Elizabeth and they had no friends because they were too clever.  We weren’t jealous of their cleverness, they just weren't interested in the same things as us ordinary folk were – chocolate, the Beatles, and boys, lemonade shandies, and boys [mostly boys].

Elizabeth did have friends of sorts but they were like her.  Her poems drew the attention of two Greek scholars - Hugh Stuart Boyd and Uvedale Price, “with whom she maintained a sustained scholarly correspondence.  During their friendship Barrett studied Greek literature, including Homer, Pindar and Aristophanes”.  Not much larking about in the bicycle sheds then.

It was worse because Elizabeth Barrett Browning also had a very strong will.  Elizabeth's mother died in 1828. Elizabeth's aunt helped to care for the children, but she had constant clashes with Elizabeth, because of her 'prodigious strong will'.

I may sound a little flippant in describing this, but if you go the route of Ms Barrett Browning, developing the needs of the Conscious mind to the exclusion of the subconscious mind  and its need of emotion and pleasure, love, passion, play, humour, irrationality, childishness and general jollity, you not only deny your composer any chance of ever getting through to you with true inspiration and wisdom, but you are also likely to make yourself seriously ill.  

And ill she was.

At about age 15, Barrett Browning began to battle with a lifelong illness, which the medical science of the time was unable to diagnose. She had intense head and spinal pain with loss of mobility. She was really really ill. She began to take opiates for the pain, laudanum  then morphine, commonly prescribed at the time. She would become dependent on them for the rest of her life.

For anyone else, a concoction such as this would have been a disaster, but in Elizabeth's case, her door was so fast shut, it needed something to get it open, and a gentle turn of the handle would not have worked.  Only the violent kick of something like laudanum would have worked.  Once she took it, her subconscious was freed and suddenly her poetry stopped being the stilted self conscious ramblings of the intellectual and instead became the vivid imaginings of the inspired.

In 1838 The Seraphim and Other Poems appeared, the first volume of  poetry to appear under her own name. During 1837–8 the poet was struck with illness again.  In 1838, at her physician's insistence, she moved from London to Torquay, on the Devonshire coast. Two tragedies then struck: in February 1840 her brother Samuel died of a fever in Jamaica and her brother Edward ('Bro'), with whom she was very close, went with her to Torquay and was drowned in a sailing accident in July. This had a serious effect on her already fragile health; when they found his body after a couple of days, she had no strength for tears or words.  She wrote "That was a very near escape from madness, absolute hopeless madness".

Elizabeth was a prolific poet.  Her prolific output made her a rival to Tennyson as a candidate for poet laureate in 1850 on the death of Wordsworth.  But only some of it can really be classified as inspired poetry.  And all her really inspired poetry at this time comes at times of appalling grief or at times of illness, when she was back on the laudanum or morphine.

At other times she writes commendable worthy poems, high on social comment.  The poem "The Cry of the Children", published in 1842, for example, condemned child labour and helped bring about child labour reforms by raising support for Lord Shaftesbury's Ten Hours Bill (1844).  This is wonderful, but it is intellectually wonderful.  It is also not really poetry, it is rhymed prose.

And then, when she was 39 years old,  Robert Browning, after admiring her work, arranged to meet Elizabeth  in her rooms, and so began one of the most famous courtships in literature. He had a great influence on her writing, as did she on his: two of Barrett’s most famous pieces were produced after she met Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh.

We have from critics some very silly observations about this romance.  They describe him as  'an undermining influence':

"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".

Her health declined from the opium.  But the intellectual decline – for a poet - was the best think that could have happened to her.

The verse-novel Aurora Leigh, one of her most ambitious poems, appeared in 1856. It is the story of a female writer making her way in life, balancing work and love. The writings depicted in this novel are based on Elizabeth's own experiences.  Because it was from the heart and not the head, it became one of her most popular poems.

The story of their love sends all women of any soul into tears.  She could not believe that the vigorous and worldly Robert Browning really loved her as much as he professed. After a private marriage, they honeymooned in Paris. Browning then took her to Italy, in September 1846, which became their home almost continuously until her death. Can you imagine what that meant to her?  I can, most women probably can.  Elizabeth's loyal nurse, Wilson, who witnessed the marriage, accompanied the couple to Italy. 

Elizabeth and son Pen.

With his love, Elizabeth grew stronger and in 1849, at the age of 43, between four miscarriages, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. At her husband's insistence, Elizabeth's second edition of Poems included her love sonnets; on their publication her popularity increased hugely.  She had become a true poet.

Her last work was entitled simply A Musical Instrument, published posthumously.

In 1860 the Brownings returned to Rome, only to find that Elizabeth’s sister Henrietta had died. She became gradually weaker, using morphine to ease her pain. She died on 29 June 1861 in her husband's arms. Browning said that she died "smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl's. … Her last word was—… 'Beautiful'".


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