Elizabeth Barrett Browning (6 March 1806 – 29 June 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.
Meeting Robert Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 1844 Poems made her one of the most popular writers in the land at the time and inspired Robert Browning to write to her, telling her how much he loved her poems. Kenyon arranged for Robert Browning to meet Elizabeth in May 1845, and so began one of the most famous courtships in literature. Elizabeth had produced a large amount of work and had been writing long before Robert Browning had ever published a word. However, he had a great influence on her writing, as did she on his; it is observable that Elizabeth’s poetry matured after meeting Robert. Two of Barrett’s most famous pieces were produced after she met Browning: Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh.
Some critics, however, point to 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."
Among Elizabeth's best known lyrics are Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850)— the "Portuguese" being her husband's pet name for her. The title also refers to the series of sonnets of the 16th-century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões; in all these poems she used rhyme schemes typical of the Portuguese sonnets. The verse-novel Aurora Leigh, her most ambitious and perhaps the most popular of her longer poems, appeared in 1856. It is the story of a woman writer making her way in life, balancing work and love. The writings depicted in this novel are all based on similar, personal experiences that Elizabeth suffered through herself. The North American Review praised Elizabeth’s poem in these words: “ Mrs. Browning’s poems are, in all respects, the utterance of a woman—of a woman of great learning, rich experience, and powerful genius, uniting to her woman’s nature the strength which is sometimes thought peculiar to a man.”
Courtship and marriage to Robert Browning
The courtship and marriage between Robert Browning and Elizabeth were carried out secretly. Six years his elder and an invalid, she could not believe that the vigorous and worldly Browning really loved her as much as he professed to, and her doubts are expressed in the Sonnets from the Portuguese, which she wrote over the next two years. Love conquered all, however, and after a private marriage at St. Marylebone Parish Church, Browning imitated his hero Shelley by spiriting his beloved off to Italy in August 1846, which became her home almost continuously until her death. Elizabeth's loyal nurse, Wilson, who witnessed the marriage at the church, accompanied the couple to Italy.
Mr. Barrett disinherited Elizabeth, as he did each of his children who married. As Elizabeth had some money of her own, the couple were reasonably comfortable in Italy, and their relationship together was harmonious. The Brownings were well respected in Italy, and even famous, for they would be asked for autographs or stopped by people because of their celebrity. Elizabeth grew stronger and in 1849, at the age of 43, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. Their son later married but had no legitimate children, so there are apparently no direct descendants of the two famous poets.
“Several Browning critics have suggested that the poet decided that he was an "objective poet" and then sought out a “subjective poet” in the hope that dialogue with her would enable him to be more successful.”
At her husband's insistence, the second edition of Elizabeth’s Poems included her love sonnets; as a result, her popularity shot up (as well as her critical regard), and her position as Victorian poetess du jour was cemented. In 1850, upon the occasion of the death of William Wordsworth, she was thought to be a serious contender for Poet Laureate, but the position went to Tennyson.
At the death of an old friend, G.B. Hunter, and then of her father, her health faded again, centering around deteriorating lung function. She was moved from Florence to Siena, residing at the Villa Alberti. In 1860 she issued a small volume of political poems titled Poems before Congress. These poems related to political issues for the Italians, “most of which were written to express her sympathy with the Italian cause after the outbreak of fighting in 1859.” She dedicated this book to her husband. Her last work was A Musical Instrument, published posthumously.
In 1860 they returned to Rome, only to find that Elizabeth’s sister Henrietta had died, news which made Elizabeth weak and depressed. She became gradually weaker and died on 29 June 1861. She was buried in the English Cemetery of Florence. “On Monday July 1 the shops in the section of the city around Casa Guidi were closed, while Elizabeth was mourned with unusual demonstrations.” The nature of her illness is still unclear, although medical and literary scholars have speculated that longstanding pulmonary problems, combined with palliative opiates, contributed to her decline.
American poet Edgar Allan Poe was inspired by Barrett Browning's poem Lady Geraldine's Courtship and specifically borrowed the poem's meter for his poem The Raven. Poe had reviewed Barrett's work in the January 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal and said that "her poetic inspiration is the highest—we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself." In return, she praised The Raven and Poe dedicated his 1845 collection The Raven and Other Poems to her, referring to her as "the noblest of her sex."