Elizabeth Barrett Browning
One of the Great Poets of England
1806 – 1861 A.D.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the great poets of England. She early displayed precocity, eagerly read books beyond the comprehension of most children, and when about eleven years old, composed The Battle of Marathon, an echo of Pope’s Iliad. Taking up the study of the classics in the original, she read widely in Greek literature. In 1926 she published anonymously An Essay on Mind and Other Poems, and in 1844, published Poems, including The Cry of the Children, and Lady Geraldine’s Courtship, in which she praised Robert Browning’s verse. In May, 1845, she first met him, and on September 12, 1846, they were married against her fathers wishes. The married life of these brilliant poets was singularly happy, and their mutual influence is clearly seen in their verse. Proceeding to Italy, they made Florence their home and there mutual influence is clearly seen in their verse. Proceeding to Italy, they made Florence their home and there in 1849 a son was born, Robert W. B., who became known as an artist and a poet. In 1850 appeared a collected edition of Mrs. Browning’s poems, containing a translation of the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus, and in 1856 Aurora Leigh a romance, partly autobiographical, in blank verse.
During her early childhood she had a spinal affection, her lungs became delicate, and all her life she was more or less an invalid. In 1860 her health began to fail, and she died in Florence June 30, 1861. Here husband who tended her alone on the night of her decease, wrote to a friend:
“With the most perfect expression of her love to me, smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl’s, she died in my arms, her head on my cheek. There was no lingering, nor acute pain, nor consciousness of separation, but God took her to Himself as you would lift a sleeping child from a dark uneasy bed into your arms and the light.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne thus describes her appearance:
A pale, small person, scarcely embodied at all; at any rate, only substantial enough to put forth her slender fingers to be grasped, and to speak with a shrill, yet sweet, tenuity of voice. She is a good and kind fairy, sweetly disposed towards the human race, although only remotely akin to it. It is wonderful to see how small she is, how pale her cheeks, how bright and dark her eyes. There is not such another figure in the world; and her black ringlets cluster down into her neck, and make her face look the whiter by their sable profusion.”
The literary estimates of Mrs. Browning’s poetry differ widely, though it is generally agreed that she holds a high place among the masters of poetic verse. In Aurora Leigh there are many fine moments, as in these lines:
“Nothing is small.
No lily-muffled hum of summer bee
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot but proves a sphere;
. . . Earth’s crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”
The Sonnets from the Portuguese, which were in reality original compositions, written after her engagement to Robert Browning, are unrivaled, of their kind, in the English language as an exquisite expression of pure yet passionate love.
Edgar Allen Poe claimed she had done more in poetry, than any woman, living or dead. William Sharp thought that “no more impassioned soul ever found expression in rhythmical speech.”
While Lilian Whiting said: “There are passages in her work which surpass anything that has been given to the world since Shakespeare.”
Perhaps the more conservative opinion of Alice Meynell is nearest the truth:
“The place of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in English literature is high, if not upon the summits. She had an original genius, a fervent heart, and an intellect that was, if not great, exceedingly active. She seldom has composure or repose, and while the impassioned peace of the greatest poetry is not hers, there is in her poetic personality a glory of righteousness, of spirituality, and of ardour that makes her name a splendid one in the history of an incomparable literature.”
Reference: Famous Women; An Outline of Feminine Achievement Through the Ages With Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women By Joseph Adelman. Copyright, 1926 by Ellis M. Lonow Company.