Elizabeth Barrett Browing: 1830s-50s

Elizabeth Barett Browning and Robert Browning are two of England's most noted romantic poets. Elizabeth grew up in a priviliged, wealthy family. She had 11 brothers and sisters. Their brothers dressed the boys just like the girls in dresses and long hair until they were quite old. Elizabeth lived a very closeted life at home until she met and married Robert. Her father objected to the mairrage. The two moved to Italy and let an idelic life, devoting themselves to art and poetry. Elizabeth was a crusader for women's rights and social justice. They had a son, Pen, who became the light of her life and she spoiled outrageously. Like her mother, she insisted on long hair and dresses for her son.

Elizabeth's Interest in the Classics

In her early twenties Barrett befriended Hugh Stuart Boyd, a blind, middle-aged scholar, who rekindled Barrett's interest in Greek studies. During their friendship Barrett absorbed an astonishing amount of Greek literature--Homer, Pindar, Aristophanes, etc... But after a few years Barrett's fondness for Boyd diminshed and she began to view him as naive limited and pathetic.


Her intellectual fascination with the classics and metaphysics was balanced by a religious obsession which she later described as not the deep persuasion of the mild Christian but the wild visions of an enthusiast. Her family attended services at the nearest Dissenting chapel, and Mr. Barrett was active in the Bible and Missionary societies. From 1822 on, Elizabeth Barrett's interests tended more and more to the scholarly and literary. Her An Essay on Mind and Other Poems was published in 1826 and was followed by Prometheus and Other Poems.

Father's Financial Problems

Mr. Barrett's financial losses in the early 30's forced him to sell Hope End, and although never poor, the family moved three times between 1832 and 1837, settling at 50 Wimpole Street in London. Her Searaphim and Other Poems in 1838 expressed Christian sentiments in the artistic form of a Greek tragedy. Her An Essay on Mind and Other Poems was published in 1826 and was followed by Prometheus and Other Poems.

Elizabeth's Poetry

She published The Seraphim and Other Poems in 1838, the first volume of Elizabeth's mature poetry to appear under her own name. She was always in delicate health, having suffered from a spinal injury in childhood and a later lung ailment. Confined to her room for a number of years from about 1838, she continued her literary activity. Her health forced her to move to the resort town Torquay, on the Devonshire coast. Edward who was her favorite brother went along with her. Disastrously he drowned later that year. It was a blow which prostrated her for months and from which she never fully recovered. When she returned to Wimpole Street, she became an invalid and a recluse, spending most of the next 5 years in her bedroom, seeing only one or two people other than her immediate family.

Elizabeth and Robert

Literary courtship

One of those people was John Kenyon, a wealthy and convivial friend of the arts. Her 1844 Poems made her one of the most popular writers in England. Lady's Geraldine's Courtship in particular received critcal aclaim--in both England and America. Kenyon inspired Robert Browning to write her, describing how much he admired her poetry. Kenyon arranged for Browning to come see her in May 1845, and so began one of the most famous literary courtships. Browing was 6 years his elder and an invalid himself. Elizabeth found it difficult to 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, perhaps her most admired work, which she wrote over the next 2 years in secret.

Mairrage and Italy

Love eventually conquered all, however, and Browning imitated his hero Shelley by spiriting his beloved off to Florence, Italy in August 1846. Elizabeth described it as being taken from couch to alter. Of course, since they were proper Victorians they were married a week beforehand. They spent 15 happy years in Italy until her untimely death. After arriving in Italy, her husband discoverd Sonners from the Portuguese and was so moved that he insisted on their publication.

Father objects

Elizabeth's father was outraged and disinherited her, as he did each one of his children who got married without his permission--and of course he never gave his permission. Unlike her brothers and sisters, Elizabeth had inherited some money of her own, so the Brownings were reasonably comfortable in Italy.

Robert encourages Elizabeth's poetry

At her husband's insistence, the second edition of her Poems included her love sonnets, and this helped increase her popularity and the high critical regard in which the Victorians held their favorite poetess. (On Wordsworth's death in that same year, she was seriously considered for the Laureateship, which went to Tennyson.) Her growing interest in the Italian struggle for independence is evident in Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860). 1857 saw the publication of the verse-novel Aurora Leigh, which today attracts more attention than the rest of her poetry.

Social justice

Barrett's treatment of social injustice (slave trade in America, the oppression of the Italians by the Austrians, the labor of children in the mines and the mills of England, and the restrictions placed upon women) is manifested in many of her poems. Two of her poems, Casa Guidi Windows and Poems Before Congress, dealt directly with the Italian fight for independence. The first half of Casa Guidi Windows, published in 1851 was filled with hope that the newly awakened liberal movements were moving toward unification and freedom in the Italian states. The second half of the poem, written after the movement of liberalism had been crushed in Italy, is dominated by her disillusionment. After a decade of truce, Italians once again began to struggle for their freedom, but were forced to agree to an armistice that would leave Venice under Austrian control. Barrett wrote Poems Before Congress (1860) which responded to these events by bashing the English government for not providing aid. One of the poems in this collection, A Curse For a Nation, attacked slavery and had been previously published in an abolitionist journal in Boston.

Final poems

She did not do a great deal of work for a year or so after her marriage--as she says, before she could go forward she had to learn how to stand up steadily after so great a revolution -- the intermission was brief and the follow-through impressive. Before her death in 1861: Poems of 1850, Casa Guida Windows (1851), Aurora Leigh, Poems before Congress (1860), and her last Poems. Aurora Leigh, her longest work, was a didactic, romantic poem in blank verse It has received considerable attention because of its feminest themes. Aurora Leigh also dealt with social injustice, but its subject was the subjugation of women to the dominating male. It also commented on the role of a woman as a woman and poet. Barrett's popularity waned after her death, and late-Victorian critics argued that although much of her writing would be forgotten, she would be remembered for The Cry of the Children, Isabel's Child, Bertha in the Lane, and most of all Sonnets from the Portuguese. One literary exper argues that Aurora Leigh's heroine, "with her passionate interest in the social questions, her conflict as artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom, is the true daughter of her age." Woolfe's praise guaranteed that Elizabeth Barrett Browning would be remembered . Although it was largely ignored at the time, recent feminist criticism has heeded her words.


Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography.

Christopher Wagner


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Created: September 8, 1998
Last updated: September 10, 1998