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Born on March 6, 1806, at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, England, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an English poet of theRomantic Movement. The oldest of twelve children, Elizabeth was the first in her family born in England in over two hundred years. For centuries, the Barrett family, who were part Creole, had lived in Jamaica, where they owned sugar plantations and relied on slave labor. Elizabeths father, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, chose to raise his family in England, while his fortune grew in Jamaica. Educated at home, Elizabeth apparently had read passages fromParadise Lostand a number of Shakespearean plays, among other great works, before the age of ten. By her twelfth year, she had written her first epic poem, which consisted of four books of rhyming couplets. Two years later, Elizabeth developed a lung ailment that plagued her for the rest of her life. Doctors began treating her with morphine, which she would take until her death. While saddling a pony when she was fifteen, Elizabeth also suffered a spinal injury. Despite her ailments, her education continued to flourish. Throughout her teenage years, Elizabeth taught herself Hebrew so that she could read the Old Testament; her interests later turned to Greek studies. Accompanying her appetite for the classics was a passionate enthusiasm for her Christian faith. She became active in the Bible and Missionary Societies of her church.
In 1826, Elizabeth anonymously published her collectionAn Essay on Mind and Other Poems. Two years later, her mother passed away. The slow abolition of slavery in England and mismanagement of the plantations depleted the Barrettss income, and in 1832, Elizabeths father sold his rural estate at a public auction. He moved his family to a coastal town and rented cottages for the next three years, before settling permanently in London. While living on the sea coast, Elizabeth published her translation ofPrometheus Bound(1833), by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus.
Gaining attention for her work in the 1830s, Elizabeth continued to live in her fathers London house under his tyrannical rule. He began sending Elizabeths younger siblings to Jamaica to help with the familys estates. Elizabeth bitterly opposed slavery and did not want her siblings sent away. During this time, she wroteThe Seraphim and Other Poems(1838), expressing Christian sentiments in the form of classical Greek tragedy. Due to her weakening disposition, she was forced to spend a year at the sea of Torquay accompanied by her brother Edward, whom she referred to as Bro. He drowned later that year while sailing at Torquay, and Browning returned home emotionally broken, becoming an invalid and a recluse. She spent the next five years in her bedroom at her fathers home. She continued writing, however, and in 1844 produced a collection entitled simplyPoems. This volume gained the attention of poetRobert Browning, whose work Elizabeth had praised in one of her poems, and he wrote her a letter.
Elizabeth and Robert, who was six years her junior, exchanged 574 letters over the next twenty months. Immortalized in 1930 in the playThe Barretts of Wimpole Street, by Rudolf Besier (1878-1942), their romance was bitterly opposed by her father, who did not want any of his children to marry. In 1846, the couple eloped and settled in Florence, Italy, where Elizabeths health improved and she bore a son, Robert Wideman Browning. Her father never spoke to her again. ElizabethsSonnets from the Portuguese, dedicated to her husband and written in secret before her marriage, was published in 1850. Critics generally consider theSonnetsone of the most widely known collections of love lyrics in Englishto be her best work. Admirers have compared her imagery toShakespeareand her use of the Italian form toPetrarch.
Political and social themes embody Elizabeths later work. She expressed her intense sympathy for the struggle for the unification of Italy inCasa Guidi Windows(1848-1851) andPoems Before Congress(1860). In 1857 Browning published her verse novelAurora Leigh, which portrays male domination of a woman. In her poetry she also addressed the oppression of the Italians by the Austrians, the child labor mines and mills of England, and slavery, among other social injustices. Although this decreased her popularity, Elizabeth was heard and recognized around Europe.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence on June 29, 1861.
The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning(1900)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Hitherto Unpublished Poems and Stories(1914)
New Poems by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning(1914)
Queen Annelida and False Arcite; The Complaint of Annelida to False Arcite,(1841)
The Daughters of Pandarus from the Odyssey(1846)
The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets(1863)
Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Addressed to Richard Hengist Horne(1877)
The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning(1897)
Letters to Robert Browning and Other Correspondents by Elizabeth Barrett Browning(1916)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to Her Sister, 1846-1859(1929)
Letters from Elizabeth Barrett to B. R. Haydon(1939)
Twenty Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett to Hugh Stuart Boyd(1950)
New Letters from Mrs. Browning to Isa Blagden(1951)
The Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford(1954)
Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Hugh Stuart Boyd(1955)
Letters of the Brownings to George Barrett(1958)
Diary by E. B. B.: The Unpublished Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1831-1832(1969)
The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1845-1846(1969)
Elizabeth Barrett Brownings Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy, 1849-1861(1973)
My letters! all dead paper, mute and white! And yet they seem alive and quivering Against my tremulous hands which loose the string And let them drop down on my knee tonight. This saidhe wished to have me in his sight Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring To come and touch my hand. . . a simple thing, Yes I wept for itthis . . . the papers light. . . Said,
; and I sank and quailed As if Gods future thundered on my past. This said,
and so its ink has paled With lying at my heart that beat too fast. And this . . . 0 Love, thy words have ill availed If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!
Beloved, my Beloved, when I think That thou wast in the world a year ago, What time I sate alone here in the snow And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink No moment at thy voice … but, link by link, Went counting all my chains, as if that so They never could fall off at any blow Struck by thy possible hand … why, thus I drink Of lifes great cup of wonder! Wonderful, Never to feel thee thrill the day or night With personal act or speech,nor ever cull Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull, Who cannot guess Gods presence out of sight.
When our two souls stand up erect and strong, Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher, Until the lengthening wings break into fire At either curvd point,what bitter wrong Can the earth do to us, that we should not long Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher, The angels would press on us and aspire To drop some golden orb of perfect song Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay Rather on earth, Belovd,where the unfit Contrarious moods of men recoil away And isolate pure spirits, and permit A place to stand and love in for a day, With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.
John Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, on July 28, 1927.