The celebrated Romantic poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most influential figures within English poetry during the Victorian age. She was born in 1806, in County Durham, as the first of twelve children. She died in Italy, in 1861, following a prolonged illness.
She continues to be admired for deeply spiritual works like verse novel Aurora Leigh and love lyric compilation Sonnets from the Portuguese. She has been cited as an influence by writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Lillian Whiting. In 1845, Poe dedicated his anthology The Raven and Other Poems to her and dubbed her ‘the noblest of her sex.’
Making Waves in Literary Circles
As the daughter of a sugar plantation owner (of Creole descent), Elizabeth Barrett was the first child born in England, to the Moulton Barrett family, in two centuries. She was home schooled and showed great promise from an early age - by ten, she had already started reading the great epics by Milton and Shakespeare.
She started to write her own poetry from the age of six years old and this work was carefully collated by her mother. It now stands as one of the most extensive compilations of poetry by a child in the history of the English language. As a teenager, however, Elizabeth fell sick and started to experience extreme head and spinal pain.
It is believed that she was prescribed laudanum as a form of pain relief, but that the drug may have resulted in a chronic addiction and possibly even made her illness worse. During the 1830s, a cousin brought her to the attention of a circle of admired literary icons like Samuel Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle. In 1838, she released her first poetry anthology, titled The Seraphim and Other Poems.
Finding an Identify as a Political Poet
However, luck was not on her side and she fell sick again, probably with tuberculosis. From this point on, Elizabeth would struggle to feel well from day to day. As a result of pressure from her doctor and father, she moved to the coast, in order to seek restoration from the countryside. Yet, the plan failed most spectacularly, because in 1840, her brothers Samuel and Edward died in separate incidents.
The relationship between Elizabeth and Edward was a dear one and his passing caused her much strife. In 1841, she moved back to the city, even though she was still suffering from serious health issues. For the next three years, she resided in her the house of her father, in London, where she wrote constantly. There now exists a commemorative plaque at the address on 50 Wimpole Street.
Despite the Moulton Barrett connection to the slave trade, she was a staunch supporter of the abolition movement. According to reports from acquaintances, this put a strain on the relationship with her father, who owned many slaves on his sugar plantations in Jamaica. The poem ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ describes a female slave who is tortured, sexually violated, and impregnated by her captors.
A Secret Marriage and a Slow Decline
In 1844, she published another collection called Poems and it made her a star in England. It was shortly after this that she first met her future husband, Robert Browning. The inseparable pair took to dating in secret, because it was judged best that her father not know about the romance; their subsequent marriage was conducted clandestinely.
Unfortunately, her father did find out and excluded her from his will. Plus, her brothers turned their backs on her, labeling Browning a ‘bad influence.’ The newly married couple relocated to Italy, and there Elizabeth gave birth to a son, their only child. She would never again return to England.
In the years leading up to her death, in 1861, she suffered greatly with degenerative lung disease and eventually died, at the age of 55, in Florence. Robert was close by and claimed that her final word was, simply, ‘beautiful.’ She was buried in the Protest English Cemetery of Florence. He gave the go ahead for a posthumous poetry collection, called Last Poems, to be released shortly after her passing.