Welcome to Biography Out Loud. I am your host, Dane Allred.
Born in 1906, she knew William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, Edgar Allen Poe, and was also married to a famous poet. Her poetry greatly influenced Emily Dickenson, and while she was already famous when she married, most people are more familiar with her married name. Who is this poet, called one of the great Victorian writers?
We’ll find out in a moment on:
Biography Out Loud
Elizabeth Barrett is perhaps best known by her married name, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but she was a famous poet before she married. At the age of 20, she became ill with an undiagnosed disease which left her weak and frail. She took morphine for the pain, eventually becoming addicted to the medication.
Though her family was wealthy when she was born, reversals in the family fortune forced the sale of a large farm. The end of slavery in Jamaica also affected the family income, since a sugar plantation they owned was run by slave labor. During this time Elizabeth Barrett became famous, rubbing shoulders with many other famous poets of the time.
It was suggested by her physician she relocate nearer the ocean, and convincing her brother to accompany her, she later felt responsible for his death. He drowned in a sailing accident in Torquay on the Devonshire coast.
A voracious reader and scholar, she learned Greek and Hebrew. In 1833, she published a translation of “Prometheus Bound”, a work by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus.
In 1842, she wrote a book of poetry called “The Cry of the Children”, which later influenced changes in the child labor laws. In 1844, now a poet with a world-wide reputation, she received letters from Robert Browning which declared his love for her poetry. He met with her and a great romance developed. He wrote her 574 letters in the next twenty months. She was six years his senior, and was not convinced of his devotion, detailing her doubts in “The Sonnets from the Portuguese”. After a long courtship, they were married and went to Italy to live. Elizabeth was disowned by her father who did the same to each child who married.
She wrote of this time in her life, “The Mrs. Browning of popular imagination was a sweet, innocent young woman who suffered endless cruelties at the hands of a tyrannical papa but who nonetheless had the good fortune to fall in love with a dashing and handsome poet named Robert Browning. She finally escaped the dungeon of Wimpole Street, eloped to Italy, and lived happily ever after.” While in Italy, her health improved and at the age of 43 she gave birth to their son Pen. They were successful and lived comfortably in Italy, becoming local celebrities who were often stopped and asked for autographs.
Edgar Allen Poe reviewed one of her poems and said "her poetic inspiration is the highest—we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself." Inspired by her poem entitled “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”, Poe borrowed the meter of the poem and used it in “The Raven”. She later praised Poe’s work on “The Raven”.
After the death of William Wordsworth, it was thought Elizabeth Barrett Browning might be named Poet Laureate, but Tennyson was appointed. Her health failed again after the death of her father and sister. Weak and depressed, she died on June 29th, 1861. Buried in 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.”
Perhaps her best known poem is “How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways”. In a letter to a Mr. Chorley, a friend and critic, she said, “I never wrote to please any of you, not even to please my own husband.” She also insisted she wrote from the heart and from an obligation to tell the truth. She once said, “Every genuine artist in the world goes to heaven for speaking the truth.”
In Sonnet 14, she asks to be “loved for love’s sake.”
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only. Do not say
"I love her for her smile —her look —her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day" -
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love's sake, that evermore
Thou may'st love on, through love's eternity'.
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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