Biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Poet and Activist

Famous then forgotten, this Victorian-era poet inspired generations

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barret Browning (1806-1861), English poet and wife of Robert Browning. Head and shoulders daguerreotype, ca. 1848.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Elizabeth Barrett Browning may be the perfect example of the transient power of fame. In the mid-19th century, Browning was one of the most famous and influential writers of her time; writers such as Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe cited her influence on their own work. At one point, she was even a serious candidate for Poet Laureate of the United States despite the fact that she lived in Italy for the last few decades of her life. Her poems are still vibrantly alive in the modern age, including her most famous works, Sonnet 43 (aka How Do I Love Thee?) and the long, lush narrative poem Aurora Leigh, considered an important proto-feminist work.

Fast Facts: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

  • Full Name: Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett
  • Born: March 6, 1806 in Durham, England
  • Died: June 29, 1861 in Florence, Italy
  • Parents: Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke
  • Spouse: Robert Browning
  • Children: Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning
  • Literary Movement: Romanticism
  • Major Works: The Seraphim (1838), Sonnet 43 (1844; 1850 [revised]), Aurora Leigh (1856)
  • Famous Quote: "I belong to a family of West Indian slaveholders, and if I believed in curses, I should be afraid."
  • Legacy: Browning was an accomplished intellectual and activist at a time when women were still discouraged from engaging in such pursuits. She was an innovative poet who chose subjects that were unusual for the time and constantly—and successfully—broke the rules of poetry.

Early Years

Born in Durham, England, in 1806, Browning was by all accounts a very happy child, enjoying her life at the family’s country house in Worcestershire. Educated at home, Browning began writing poetry at the age of four, and read books far beyond her age. When she was just 14 years old, her father privately published a collection of her poetry to be distributed to the rest of the family, and her mother kept almost all of her early work, which has been preserved for history.

In 1821, when Browning was 15 years old, she fell ill with a mysterious affliction that caused her intense pain in her head and back, heart palpitations, and exhaustion. Doctors at the time were mystified, but many modern physicians suspect Browning suffered from hypokalemic periodic paralysis (HKPP), a genetic condition that causes potassium levels in the blood to drop. Browning began taking laudanum, a tincture of opium, to treat her symptoms.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Engraved portrait of young Elizabeth Barrett Browning, British poet. Kean Collection / Getty Images

After two of her brothers passed away in 1840, Browning fell into a deep depression, but as her health temporarily improved she began working industriously, and the poet John Kenyon (patron of her future husband Robert Browning) began to introduce her to literary society.

Browning published her first collection of adult work in 1838, and launched a prolific period of her career, publishing her collection Poems in 1844 as well as several well-received works of literary criticism. The collection rocketed her to literary fame.

Writing and Poetry

Her work inspired writer Robert Browning, who had experienced early success with his own poetry but whose career had faded, to write to Elizabeth, and their mutual acquaintance John Kenyon arranged a meeting in 1845. Up to this point Elizabeth Browning’s productivity had been in decline, but the romance rekindled her creativity and she produced many of her most famous poems while secretly courting Browning. The secrecy was necessary because she knew her father would not approve of a man six years her junior. Indeed, after their marriage, her father disinherited her.

Their courtship inspired many of the sonnets that would eventually appear in Sonnets From the Portuguese, considered to be one of the most accomplished collections of sonnets in history. The collection included her most famous work, Sonnet 43, which begins with the famous line "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." She included her romantic poems at the urging of her husband, and their popularity secured her position as an important poet.

The Brownings moved to Italy, where Elizabeth remained almost continuously for the rest of her life. Italy’s climate and Robert’s attentions improved her health, and in 1849 she gave birth to their son Robert, nicknamed Pen, at the age of 43.

The Brownings In The Gondola City C1925
'The Brownings in the Gondola City', c1925. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. From Cassell's Romance of Famous Lives, Volume 3 by Harold Wheeler.  Print Collector / Getty Images

In 1856, Browning published the long narrative poem Aurora Leigh, which she described as a novel in verse telling the life story of the titular woman from her own point of view. The long work of blank verse was very successful and reflected much of Browning’s own experience as a woman in a time when the earliest ideas of feminism were just beginning to enter the public consciousness.

Browning was a restless writer, constantly innovating and breaking with conventions. Her subjects ranged far beyond the typical romantic and historic subjects then considered appropriate, delving into philosophical, personal, and political topics. She played with style and format as well; in her poem The Seraphim, two angels engage in a complex dialog when they leave heaven to witness Christ’s crucifixion, both a subject and a format that was unusual and innovative for the time.

Activism

Browning believed that poetry should not be simply an ornamental art, but should act as both a record of the times and an investigation into them. Her early work, especially the 1826 An Essay on Mind, argued that poetry should be used to effect political change. Browning’s poetry dealt with issues such as the evils of child labor and the poor conditions of workers in general (The Cry of the Children) and the horrors of slavery (The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point). In the latter poem, Browning condemns both religion and government for their role in supporting slavery, a radical position to take at the time of the poem’s publication in 1850.

Browning infused her work with philosophical and religious debates, and was a strong advocate for equal rights for women, a theme explored in great detail in Aurora Leigh. Much of her work addressed specific issues of the time, and the unifying theme of her activism is the fight for greater representation, rights, and protections for the poor and the powerless, including women, who had limited legal rights, no direct political power, and who were often denied an education due to the conviction that their proper role was in the raising of a family and the keeping of a home. As a result, Browning’s reputation was revived long after her death as she came to be seen as a groundbreaking feminist whose work was cited by activists like Susan B. Anthony as influential.

Death and Legacy

Browning’s health began to decline again in 1860 while the couple was living in Rome. They returned to Florence in 1861 in the hope that she would grow stronger there, but she grew increasingly weak and in terrible pain. She died on June 29th, in her husband’s arms. Robert Browning reported that her final word was "beautiful."

Browning’s fame and reputation declined after her death as her romantic style fell out of fashion. However, her influence remained great among poets and other writers who looked to her innovations and structural precision for inspiration. As writing and poetry increasingly became acceptable tools for social commentary and activism, Browning’s fame was reestablished as her work was reinterpreted through a prism of feminism and activism. Today she is remembered as an immensely talented writer who broke ground in the poetic form and was a trailblazer in terms of advocating the written word as a tool for societal change.

Memorable Quotes

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.”
(Sonnet 43)

“Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others' uses, will write now for mine,—
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.”
(Aurora Leigh)

“Whatever's lost, it first was won.”
(De Profundis)

Sources

  • “Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Aug. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning.
  • “Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/elizabeth-barrett-browning.
  • “Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Illness Deciphered after 150 Years.” EurekAlert!, 19 Dec. 2011, www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-12/ps-ebb121911.php.
  • Flood, Alison. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Five Best Poems.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Mar. 2014, www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/06/elizabeth-browning-five-best-poems.
  • “Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Social and Political Issues.” The British Library, The British Library, 12 Feb. 2014, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/elizabeth-barrett-browning-social-and-political-issues.