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Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Sarah Knowles Bolton

by Sarah Knowles Bolton

Ever since I had received in my girlhood, from my best friend, the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in five volumes in blue and gold, I had read and re-read the pages, till I knew scores by heart. I had longed to see the face and home of her whom the English call "Shakespeare's daughter," and whom Edmund Clarence Stedman names "the passion-flower of the century."

I shall never forget that beautiful July morning spent in the Browning home in London. The poet-wife had gone out from it, and lay buried in Florence, but here were her books and her pictures. Here was a marble bust, the hair clustering about the face, and a smile on the lips that showed happiness. Near by was another bust of the idolized only child, of whom she wrote in Casa Guidi Windows:--

"The sun strikes through the windows, up the floor:
Stand out in it, my own young Florentine,

Not two years old, and let me see thee more!
It grows along thy amber curls to shine

Brighter than elsewhere. Now look straight before
And fix thy brave blue English eyes on mine,

And from thy soul, which fronts the future so
With unabashed and unabated gaze,

Teach me to hope for what the Angels know
When they smile clear as thou dost!"

Here was the breakfast-table at which they three had often sat together. Close beside it hung a picture of the room in Florence, where she lived so many years in a wedded bliss as perfect as any known in history. Tears gathered in the eyes of Robert Browning, as he pointed out her chair, and sofa, and writing-table.

Of this room in Casa Guidi, Kate Field wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, September, 1861: "They who have been so favored can never forget the square ante-room, with its great picture and piano-forte, at which the boy Browning passed many an hour; the little dining room covered with tapestry, and where hung medallions of Tennyson, Carlyle, and Robert Browning; the long room filled with plaster casts and studies, which was Mr. Browning's retreat; and, dearest of all, the large drawing-room, where she always sat. It opens upon a balcony filled with plants, and looks out upon the old iron-gray church of Santa Felice. There was something about this room that seemed to make it a proper and especial haunt for poets. The dark shadows and subdued light gave it a dreamy look, which was enhanced by the tapestry-covered walls, and the old pictures of saints that looked out sadly from their carved frames of black wood. Large bookcases, constructed of specimens of Florentine carving selected by Mr. Browning, were brimming over with wise-looking books. Tables were covered with more gayly bound volumes, the gifts of brother authors. Dante's grave profile, a cast of Keats' face and brow taken after death, a pen-and-ink sketch of Tennyson, the genial face of John Kenyon, Mrs. Browning's good friend and relative, little paintings of the boy Browning, all attracted the eye in turn, and gave rise to a thousand musings. But the glory of all, and that which sanctified all, was seated in a low armchair near the door. A small table, strewn with writing materials, books and newspapers, was always by her side."

Then Mr. Browning, in the London home, showed us the room where he writes, containing his library and hers. The books are on simple shelves, choice, and many very old and rare. Here are her books, many in Greek and Hebrew. In the Greek, I saw her notes on the margin in Hebrew, and in the Hebrew she had written her marginal notes in Greek. Here also are the five volumes of her writings, in blue and gold.

The small table at which she wrote still stands beside the larger where her husband composes. His table is covered with letters and papers and books; hers stands there unused, because it is a constant reminder of those companionable years, when they worked together. Close by hangs a picture of the "young Florentine," Robert Barrett Browning, now grown to manhood, an artist already famed. He has a refined face, as he sits in artist garb, before his easel, sketching in a peasant's house. The beloved poet who wrote at the little table, is endeared to all the world. Born in 1809, in the county of Durham, the daughter of wealthy parents, she passed her early years partly in the country in Herefordshire, and partly in the city. That she loved the country with its wild flowers and woods, her poem, The Lost Bower, plainly shows.

"Green the land is where my daily
Steps in jocund childhood played,

Dimpled close with hill and valley,
Dappled very close with shade;

Summer-snow of apple-blossoms running up from glade to glade.

* * * * *

"But the wood, all close and clenching
Bough in bough and root in root,--

No more sky (for overbranching)
At your head than at your foot,--

Oh, the wood drew me within it, by a glamour past dispute.


"But my childish heart beat stronger
Than those thickets dared to grow:

I could pierce them! I could longer
Travel on, methought, than so.

Sheep for sheep-paths! braver children climb and creep where they would go.

* * * * *

"Tall the linden-tree, and near it
An old hawthorne also grew;

And wood-ivy like a spirit
Hovered dimly round the two,

Shaping thence that bower of beauty which I sing of thus to you.


"And the ivy veined and glossy
Was enwrought with eglantine;

And the wild hop fibred closely,
And the large-leaved columbine,

Arch of door and window mullion, did right sylvanly entwine.

* * * * *

"I have lost--oh, many a pleasure,
Many a hope, and many a power--

Studious health, and merry leisure,
The first dew on the first flower!

But the first of all my losses was the losing of the bower.

* * * * *

"Is the bower lost then? Who sayeth
That the bower indeed is lost?

Hark! my spirit in it prayeth
Through the sunshine and the frost,--

And the prayer preserves it greenly, to the last and uttermost.


"Till another open for me
In God's Eden-land unknown,

With an angel at the doorway,
White with gazing at His throne,

And a saint's voice in the palm-trees, singing, 'All is lost ... and won!'"

Elizabeth Barrett wrote poems at ten, and when seventeen, published an Essay on Mind, and Other Poems. The essay was after the manner of Pope, and though showing good knowledge of Plato and Bacon, did not find favor with the critics. It was dedicated to her father, who was proud of a daughter who preferred Latin and Greek to the novels of the day.

Her teacher was the blind Hugh Stuart Boyd, whom she praises in her Wine of Cyprus.

"Then, what golden hours were for us!--
While we sate together there;

* * * * *

"Oh, our Aeschylus, the thunderous!
How he drove the bolted breath

Through the cloud to wedge it ponderous
In the gnarlèd oak beneath.

Oh, our Sophocles, the royal,
Who was born to monarch's place,

And who made the whole world loyal,
Less by kingly power than grace.


"Our Euripides, the human,
With his droppings of warm tears,

And his touches of things common
Till they rose to touch the spheres!

Our Theocritus, our Bion,
And our Pindar's shining goals!--

These were cup-bearers undying,
Of the wine that's meant for souls."

More fond of books than of social life, she was laying the necessary foundation for a noble fame. The lives of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Margaret Fuller, emphasize the necessity of almost unlimited knowledge, if woman would reach lasting fame. A great man or woman of letters, without great scholarship, is well-nigh an impossible thing.

Nine years after her first book, Prometheus Bound and Miscellaneous Poems was published in 1835. She was now twenty-six. A translation from the Greek of Aeschylus by a woman caused much comment, but like the first book it received severe criticism. Several years afterward, when she brought her collected poems before the world, she wrote: "One early failure, a translation of the Prometheus of Aeschylus, which, though happily free of the current of publication, may be remembered against me by a few of my personal friends, I have replaced here by an entirely new version, made for them and my conscience, in expiation of a sin of my youth, with the sincerest application of my mature mind." "This latter version," says Mr. Stedman, "of a most sublime tragedy is more poetical than any other of equal correctness, and has the fire and vigor of a master-hand. No one has succeeded better than its author in capturing with rhymed measures the wilful rushing melody of the tragic chorus."

In 1835 Miss Barrett made the acquaintance of Mary Russell Mitford, and a life-long friendship resulted. Miss Mitford says: "She was certainly one of the most interesting persons I had ever seen. Everybody who then saw her said the same. Of a slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on either side of a most expressive face, large tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, a smile like a sunbeam, and such a look of youthfulness, that I had some difficulty in persuading a friend, in whose carriage we went together to Cheswick, that the translatress of the Prometheus of Aeschylus, the authoress of the Essay on Mind, was old enough to be introduced into company, in technical language, was out. We met so constantly and so familiarly that, in spite of the difference of age, intimacy ripened into friendship, and after my return into the country, we corresponded freely and frequently, her letters being just what letters ought to be,--her own talk put upon paper."

The next year Miss Barrett, never robust, broke a blood-vessel in the lungs. For a year she was ill, and then with her eldest and favorite brother, was carried to Torquay to try the effect of a warmer climate. After a year spent here, she greatly improved, and seemed likely to recover her usual health.

One beautiful summer morning she went on the balcony to watch her brother and two other young men who had gone out for a sail. Having had much experience, and understanding the coast, they allowed the boatman to return to land. Only a few minutes out, and in plain sight, as they were crossing the bar, the boat went down, and the three friends perished. Their bodies even were never recovered.

The whole town was in mourning. Posters were put upon every cliff and public place, offering large rewards "for linen cast ashore marked with the initials of the beloved dead; for it so chanced that all the three were of the dearest and the best: one, an only son; the other, the son of a widow"; but the sea was forever silent.

The sister, who had seen her brother sink before her eyes, was utterly prostrated. She blamed herself for his death, because he came to Torquay for her comfort. All winter long she heard the sound of waves ringing in her ears like the moans of the dying. From this time forward she never mentioned her brother's name, and later, exacted from Mr. Browning a promise that the subject should never be broached between them.

The following year she was removed to London in an invalid carriage, journeying twenty miles a day. And then for seven years, in a large darkened room, lying much of the time upon her couch, and seeing only a few most intimate friends, the frail woman lived and wrote. Books more than ever became her solace and joy. Miss Mitford says, "She read almost every book worth reading, in almost every language, and gave herself heart and soul to that poetry of which she seem born to be the priestess." When Dr. Barry urged that she read light books, she had a small edition of Plato bound so as to resemble a novel, and the good man was satisfied. She understood her own needs better than he.

When she was twenty-nine, she published The Seraphim and Other Poems. The Seraphim was a reverential description of two angels watching the Crucifixion. Though the critics saw much that was strikingly original, they condemned the frequent obscurity of meaning and irregularity of rhyme. The next year, The Romaunt of the Page and other ballads appeared, and in 1844, when she was thirty-five, a complete edition of her poems, opening with the Drama of Exile. This was the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, the first scene representing "the outer side of the gate of Eden shut fast with cloud, from the depth of which revolves a sword of fire self-moved. Adam and Eve are seen in the distance flying along the glare."

In one of her prefaces she said: "Poetry has been to me as serious a thing as life itself,--and life has been a very serious thing; there has been no playing at skittles for me in either. I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry, nor leisure for the hour of the poet. I have done my work, so far, as work,--not as mere hand and head work, apart from the personal being, but as the completest expression of that being to which I could attain,--and as work I offer it to the public, feeling its shortcomings more deeply than any of my readers, because measured from the height of my aspiration; but feeling also that the reverence and sincerity with which the work was done should give it some protection from the reverent and sincere."

While the Drama of Exile received some adverse criticism, the shorter poems became the delight of thousands. Who has not held his breath in reading the Rhyme of the Duchess May?--

"And her head was on his breast, where she smiled as one at rest,--

Toll slowly.

'Ring,' she cried, 'O vesper-bell, in the beech-wood's old chapelle!'
But the passing-bell rings best!


"They have caught out at the rein, which Sir Guy threw loose--in vain,--

Toll slowly.

For the horse in stark despair, with his front hoofs poised in air,

On the last verge rears amain.


"Now he hangs, he rocks between, and his nostrils curdle in!--

Toll slowly.

Now he shivers head and hoof, and the flakes of foam fall off,
And his face grows fierce and thin!


"And a look of human woe from his staring eyes did go,

Toll slowly.

And a sharp cry uttered he, in a foretold agony of the headlong death below."

Who can ever forget that immortal Cry of the Children, which awoke all England to the horrors of child-labor? That, and Hood's Song of the Shirt, will never die.

Who has not read and loved one of the most tender poems in any language, Bertha in the Lane?--

"Yes, and He too! let him stand
In thy thoughts, untouched by blame.

Could he help it, if my hand
He had claimed with hasty claim?
That was wrong perhaps--but then
Such things be--and will, again.
Women cannot judge for men.

* * * * *

"And, dear Bertha, let me keep
On this hand this little ring,

Which at night, when others sleep,
I can still see glittering.
Let me wear it out of sight,
In the grave,--where it will light
All the Dark up, day and night."

No woman has ever understood better the fulness of love, or described it more purely and exquisitely.

One person among the many who had read Miss Barrett's poems, felt their genius, because he had genius in his own soul, and that person was Robert Browning. That she admired his poetic work was shown in Lady Geraldine's Courtship, when Bertram reads to his lady-love:--

"Or at times a modern volume,--Wordsworth's solemn-thoughted idyl,
Howitt's ballad verse, or Tennyson's enchanted reverie,
Or from Browning some Pomegranate, which, if cut deep down the middle,
Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity."

Mr. Browning determined to meet the unknown singer. Years later he told the story to Elizabeth C. Kinney, when she had gone with the happy husband and wife on a day's excursion from Florence. She says: "Finding that the invalid did not receive strangers, he wrote her a letter, intense with his desire to see her. She reluctantly consented to an interview. He flew to her apartment, was admitted by the nurse, in whose presence only could he see the deity at whose shrine he had long worshipped. But the golden opportunity was not to be lost; love became oblivious to any save the presence of the real of its ideal. Then and there Robert Browning poured his impassioned soul into hers; though his tale of love seemed only an enthusiast's dream. Infirmity had hitherto so hedged her about, that she deemed herself forever protected from all assaults of love. Indeed, she felt only injured that a fellow-poet should take advantage, as it were, of her indulgence in granting him an interview, and requested him to withdraw from her presence, not attempting any response to his proposal, which she could not believe in earnest. Of course, he withdrew from her sight, but not to withdraw the offer of his heart and hand; on the contrary, to repeat it by letter, and in such wise as to convince her how 'dead in earnest' he was. Her own heart, touched already when she knew it not, was this time fain to listen, be convinced, and overcome.

"As a filial daughter, Elizabeth told her father of the poet's love, and of the poet's love in return, and asked a parent's blessing to crown their happiness. At first he was incredulous of the strange story; but when the truth flashed on him from the new fire in her eyes, he kindled with rage, and forbade her ever seeing or communicating with her lover again, on the penalty of disinheritance and banishment forever from a father's love. This decision was founded on no dislike for Mr. Browning personally, or anything in him or his family; it was simply arbitrary. But the new love was stronger than the old in her,--it conquered." Mr. Barrett never forgave his daughter, and died unreconciled, which to her was a great grief.

In 1846, Elizabeth Barrett arose from her sick-bed to marry the man of her choice, who took her at once to Italy, where she spent fifteen happy years. At once, love seemed to infuse new life into the delicate body and renew the saddened heart. She was thirty-seven. She had wisely waited till she found a person of congenial tastes and kindred pursuits. Had she married earlier, it is possible that the cares of life might have deprived the world of some of her noblest works.

The marriage was an ideal one. Both had a grand purpose in life. Neither individual was merged in the other. George S. Hillard, in his Six Months in Italy, when he visited the Brownings the year after their marriage, says, "A happier home and a more perfect union than theirs it is not easy to imagine; and this completeness arises not only from the rare qualities which each possesses, but from their perfect adaptation to each other.... Nor is she more remarkable for genius and learning, than for sweetness of temper and purity of spirit. It is a privilege to know such beings singly and separately, but to see their powers quickened, and their happiness rounded, by the sacred tie of marriage, is a cause for peculiar and lasting gratitude. A union so complete as theirs--in which the mind has nothing to crave nor the heart to sigh for--is cordial to behold and soothing to remember."

"Mr. Browning," says one who knew him well, "did not fear to speak of his wife's genius, which he did almost with awe, losing himself so entirely in her glory that one could see that he did not feel worthy to unloose her shoe-latchet, much less to call her his own."

When mothers teach their daughters to cultivate their minds as did Mrs. Browning, as well as to emulate her sweetness of temper, then will men venerate women for both mental and moral power. A love that has reverence for its foundation knows no change.

"Mrs. Browning's conversation was most interesting. She never made an insignificant remark. All that she said was always worth hearing; a greater compliment could not be paid her. She was a most conscientious listener, giving you her mind and heart, as well as her magnetic eyes. Persons were never her theme, unless public characters were under discussion, or friends were to be praised. One never dreamed of frivolities in Mrs. Browning's presence, and gossip felt itself out of place. Yourself, not herself, was always a pleasant subject to her, calling out all her best sympathies in joy, and yet more in sorrow. Books and humanity, great deeds, and above all, politics, which include all the grand questions of the day, were foremost in her thoughts, and therefore oftenest on her lips. I speak not of religion, for with her everything was religion.

"Thoughtful in the smallest things for others, she seemed to give little thought to herself. The first to see merit, she was the last to censure faults, and gave the praise that she felt with a generous hand. No one so heartily rejoiced at the success of others, no one was so modest in her own triumphs. She loved all who offered her affection, and would solace and advise with any. Mrs. Browning belonged to no particular country; the world was inscribed upon the banner under which she fought. Wrong was her enemy; against this she wrestled, in whatever part of the globe it was to be found."

Three years after her marriage her only son was born. The Italians ever after called her "the mother of the beautiful child." And now some of her ablest and strongest work was done. Her Casa Guidi Windows appeared in 1851. It is the story of the struggle for Italian liberty. In the same volume were published the Portuguese Sonnets, really her own love-life. It would be difficult to find any thing more beautiful than these.

"First time he kissed me he but only kissed
The fingers of this hand wherewith I write,
And ever since, it grew more clean and white,
Slow to world-greetings, quick with its 'Oh, list,'
When the angels speak. A ring of amethyst
I could not wear here, plainer to my sight,
Than that first kiss. The second passed in height
The first, and sought the forehead, and half-missed
Half falling on the hair. O beyond meed!
That was the chrism of love, which love's own crown
With sanctifying sweetness, did precede.
The third upon my lips was folded down
In perfect, purple state; since when, indeed,
I have been proud and said, 'My love, my own!'

* * * * *

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.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right,
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints--I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears of all my life!--and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death."

Mrs. Browning's next great poem, in 1856, was Aurora Leigh, a novel in blank verse, "the most mature," she says in the preface, "of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered." Walter Savage Landor said of it: "In many pages there is the wild imagination of Shakespeare. I had no idea that any one in this age was capable of such poetry."

For fifteen years this happy wedded life, with its work of brain and hand, had been lived, and now the bond was to be severed. In June, 1861, Mrs. Browning took a severe cold, and was ill for nearly a week. No one thought of danger, though Mr. Browning would not leave her bedside. On the night of June 29, toward morning she seemed to be in a sort of ecstasy. She told her husband of her love for him, gave him her blessing, and raised herself to die in his arms. "It is beautiful," were her last words as she caught a glimpse of some heavenly vision. On the evening of July 1, she was buried in the English cemetery, in the midst of sobbing friends, for who could carry out that request?--

"And friends, dear friends, when it shall be

That this low breath is gone from me,
And round my bier ye come to weep,

Let one most loving of you all

Say, 'Not a tear must o'er her fall,--
He giveth his beloved sleep!'"

The Italians, who loved her, placed on the doorway of Casa Guidi a white marble tablet, with the words:--

"Here wrote and died E.B. Browning, who, in the heart of a woman, united the science of a sage and the spirit of a poet, and made with her verse a golden ring binding Italy and England.

"Grateful Florence placed this memorial, 1861."

For twenty-five years Robert Browning and his artist-son have done their work, blessed with the memory of her whom Mr. Stedman calls "the most inspired woman, so far as known, of all who have composed in ancient or modern tongues, or flourished in any land or time."