“be joyful while we are young”
Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett, English poet, the wife of Robert Browning, the most respected and successful woman poet of the Victorian period, was seriously considered for the laureateship that eventually was awarded to Tennyson in 1850. Elizabeth Browning’s greatest work, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), is a sequence of love sonnets addressed to her husband. Her vivid intelligence and ethereal physical appearance made a lifelong impression to all of the friends of the Brownings, including Ruskin, Carlyle, Thackeray, Rossetti and Hawthorne.
Elizabeth Browning was born in Coxhoe Hall, Durham. Her father was Edward Moulton Barrett, whose wealth was derived from Jamaican plantations. She grew up in the west of England and was largely educated at home by a tutor, quickly learning Latin and Greek, and read and wrote avidly. At the age of 14, she wrote her first collection of verse, The Battle of Marathon. It was followed by An Essay on Mind (1826), privately printed at her father’s expense, and a translation of Prometheus Bound (1833) with other poems, which appeared anonymously. Her first work to gain critical attention was The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838).
In the early 1820s, she injured her spine in a riding accident, and was long an invalid, using morphine for the pains for the rest of her life. In 1832, the Barrett family moved to Sidmouth and in 1835, to London, where she began to contribute to several periodicals. In 1838, seriously ill as a result of a broken blood-vessel, she was sent to Torquay. After the death of her brother, who drowned in Torquay, she developed an almost morbid fear of meeting anyone, and devoted herself entirely to literature. When her Poems (1844) appeared, it gained a huge popularity and was praised among others by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe. Elizabeth Browning’s name was mentioned six years later in speculations about the successor of Wordsworth as the poet laureate.
At the age of 39, she started a correspondence with the six year younger poet Robert Browning, who knew her work well. Their courtship was kept a close secret from her father, who had forbidden all twelve of his sons and daughters to marry. In the following year she ran away from her tyrannical father. In September 1846, she married Robert Browning in a church near Wimpole Street, and the couple settled a week later in Florence. Casa Guide became their base for the rest of Elizabeth’s life, although they visited Rome, Siena, Bagni di Lucca, Paris, and London. Their only child, Robert Wiedemann (known as Penini), was born in 1849.
In her late years, Elizabeth Browning developed an interest in spiritualism and the Italian independence movement. She became a supporter of Italian unity, which she advocated in Casa Guidi Windows (1851). She also opposed slavery in her books The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point (1849) and in the political Poems Before Congress (1860). Her magnum opus, Aurora Leigh (1857), was a novel in blank verse about a woman writer, her childhood and pursuit of a literary career. It also dealt with such themes as the poet’s mission, social responsibilities, and the position of women. Last Poems (1862), issued posthumously, contained some of her best-known lyrics.
For more information about the Moulton-Barrett’s, click here.
REX MOULTON-BARRETT, MD