After years of reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry, what I find most astonishing about her is her intellectual brilliance. In a time when women were neither allowed to attend university, nor encouraged to read classical literature, she was extraordinarily well-read, even by modern standards. She wrote her first poem at age four or six. By the time she was aged ten, she'd read widely in world history, Shakespeare, Homer, and Milton.
In addition, she convinced her father to allow her to 'audit' her brother's sessions with his tutor, under whose tutelage she read classical works in Latin, French, Greek, and Italian.
In 1820, at age fourteen, she published a book-length poem, The Battle of Marathon (which she had completed two years earlier) and established herself as a literary prodigy to the London literatti. She went on to publish several volumes of poems: An Essay on Mind (1826), a translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound (1833), The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), Casa Guidi Windows: A Poem (1851) and Aurora Leigh (1857), her magnum opus, to name a few. Most were well-received by the critics of her day. She was famous, celebrated in England, and had achieved fame on her own merit.
For much of her childhood (and later, as an adult), Elizabeth was delicate and sickly, spending most of her days seated in the Barrett parlor or in her room. She received guests—family and friends—in this manner. Occasionally, she took walks in the family estate's white rose garden or travelled to London (which had air pollution that exacerbated her condition). A wealthy owner of Caribbean plantations, her father, Edward Moulton Barrett, was a loving tyrant with antiquated ideas regarding his mixed-race ancestry.* The family secret was that not only did he own African slaves but was descended from one. As a result, he forbad all his 11 children from marrying.
What saved Elizabeth, in my opinion, was her love of literature and books, her determination to broaden her intellect. A neighbor and scholar, Hugh Stuart Boyd, tutored and guided her studies. Secondly, through an inheritance from her mother and aunt, she was financially independent (wealthy by the time's standards). Thirdly, as assessed by Dr. Peter Dally in his book, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A
Psychological Portrait, she was mentally tough, with an admirable strength of character.
In 1845, a less well-known poet named Robert Browning wrote her what is, essentially, a fan letter: "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett. . . . and I love you too." She had read and liked his poetry. A meeting was arranged at her home. During the next twenty months, they continued to meet, while Elizabeth secretly composed the forty-four sonnets that chronicle their love story. Writing them must have been emotionally cathartic for her. She declared her love for Robert to herself, not even dreaming of a life together.
But, at 32, Robert was handsome, bold, impetuous. He persuaded her of his love. A plan was devised with help from her siblings. Robert and Elizabeth wed, then fled on September 12, 1846 to Italy. We know this because it is also the date of their last letter (forming a total of 570 letters) before their elopement.
In Italy, under a warm Tuscan sun, Elizabeth blossomed. Her health and physical strength improved, and she was happy. She wrote a tremendous number of letters to friends and family. The couple travelled throughout Europe. In 1849, she gave birth to their only child, a son named Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning.
When Robert, now a father, discovered the sonnets, he marveled at their beauty and craftsmanship. He urged Elizabeth to publish the poems. She, however, was reticent of sharing what she perceived as poetic musings to herself—a sort of diary in verse—at a time when, as she says in one sonnet, she had been glad to just breathe his air.
So in order to obscure her authorship and give themselves a measure of privacy, they concocted the story that Elizabeth had translated the love sonnets of an obscure Portuguese poet. Hence, the book’s title, Sonnets from the Portuguese. (According to some sources, the title came from his nickname for her—“my little Portuguese”—due to her olive-toned/light tan complexion, of which Elizabeth was self-conscious.)
In 1850, Sonnets from the Portuguese was published and overlooked by most critics. Then, after eleven additional years living out a happy existence in Italy, Elizabeth died on June 29, 1861, as Robert held her.
I've re-read these poems after many years and, for the most part, they still have their lyrical beauty. In one sonnet, Elizabeth ponders what her life will be like if she gives up everything to be with him. In another sonnet, she chronicles their first passionate kiss. In yet another, he brings her flowers. My two favorites are sonnets 22 and 43. The classic lines, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. . . ."—most people in the US will recognize from high-school English class.
The remaining sonnets are technically well-crafted, though some are without the lyricism of the two sonnets mentioned.
I admit that today I find several of the sonnets heavy-handed, very Victorian. But we must acknowledge that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was of the Victorian era. Even so, I admire her forward thinking. By modern standards, she was 'politically correct' on most social justice issues of her day: she championed women's equal rights, the 1833 Emancipation Act, which abolished slavery in England, and held strong opinions on French and Italian politics. And these issues are reflected in her poetry.
Overall, I was thrilled to re-read these poems. I love reading and re-reading sonnets 22 and 43 with their lyrical turn of phrase, as much as I did as a teen:
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 curved 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, Belovѐd,--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.
Yolanda A. Reid is the author of two novels and a debut poetry collection,
Sonnets to the Japim Bird.
To read Sonnets from the Portuguese, visit http://www.sonnets.org/brownine.htm#043.