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Elizabeth Barrett Browning Biography

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English Literature

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

You've probably heard of Mary Shelley & Percy Bysshe Shelley, the husband and wife literary duo who pushed the conventions of the Romantic writing scene. But have you heard of literary power couple Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning? Their passionate love compelled them to write hundreds of letters, flee their country, and immortalize one another in poetry. Read on to learn more about social activist, independent thinker, and romance poet extraordinaire Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Biography

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was one of the most well-known and prolific English poets of the Victorian era. She was popular in both Britain and the United States during her lifetime. Her most famous works are Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), a collection of love poems about her early relationship with her husband, and Aurora Leigh (1857), an early feminist text.

Barrett Browning was born in 1806 to a wealthy family, whose fortune came from sugar plantations in Jamaica. She had a happy childhood at her family's mansion in Worcestershire, England. She was educated at home, where she read several of Shakespeare's plays, passages from Paradise Lost, and other great works before the age of 10. She learned some Greek and Latin from a tutor the family hired to teach her brother, but otherwise she taught herself entirely by reading books.

By the time she was 12, Barrett Browning had written The Battle of Marathon, her first "epic" poem composed of four books of rhyming couplets. The endeavor was funded privately by her father. In 1826, Barrett Browning anonymously shared her work with the public for the first time in her collection An Essay on Mind and Other Poems.

By 1832, the family's wealth from the sugar plantation had dried up due to an increasing push for the abolition of slavery and the mismanagement of funds in Jamaica while the Barretts were living in England. From the time she was 15, Barrett Browning was afflicted by a lung illness and a spinal injury that affected her throughout her entire life. In an effort to improve her health, Elizabeth, her father, and her ten siblings moved to a coastal town and rented various cottages when they lost their estate. After three years living by the coast, they moved back to London permanently.

Her 1838 collection The Seraphim and Other Poems earned her recognition in literary circles, and it was the first time her name appeared on the title page of any of her publications since The Battle of Marathon. Soon after the publication of The Seraphim and Other Poems, Barrett Browning's physician recommended she leave London and go to a warmer climate because her lungs were in such bad condition.

The poet then moved to Torquay, on the south coast of Devonshire, for three years. She was visited by her siblings there. When her favorite brother died in a boating accident at Torquay she moved back home and isolated herself from outside visitors.

For the next five years, Barrett Browning stayed mostly in her room at her father's London home. Her father was deeply protective and despotic, not wanting any of his children to marry or leave home. Nonetheless, she continued writing and in 1844 published her collection Poems in two parts. It received overwhelmingly positive reviews and caught the attention of poet Robert Browning, whom Barrett Browning had praised in her collection.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Marriage to Robert Browning

In 1845, Elizabeth Barrett and Browning met and fell in love. She was six years older than him and a much bigger name in literary circles at the time. Browning wrote to thank Barrett for speaking highly of him in her Poems collection, saying,

I love your verses with all my heart … and I love you, too."1

They met for the first time in the summer of 1845 and courted in secret for 20 months, during which they exchanged 575 letters. Fearing her father's wrath, the Brownings secretly married in September 1846 and moved to Italy a week later. Her father disowned her when he found out about the marriage, and she never saw him again.

The Brownings resided in Florence, Italy for most of their marriage, but they moved a lot due to financial challenges. Barrett Browning's health improved drastically in Italy. In 1849, the Brownings expanded their family tree once more with the birth of their son, Robert "Pen" Wiedeman Barrett Browning.

Each of the Brownings wrote love poems for the other: one of Barrett Browning's most famous works, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), was a collection of love poems that she wrote for her husband during the first few years of their marriage. For his part, Browning broke his vow of objectivity and wrote 'One Word More' (1855) about his love for his wife.

Sonnet: A poem that is 14 lines long with a regular rhyme scheme and a formal rhythm structure (usually iambic pentameter).

Iambic Pentameter: A line of writing with ten syllables, one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable.

Starting in 1959, Barrett Browning's lifelong condition worsened once more, and she died in her husband's arms in 1861. After her death, her husband returned to England and prepared her Last Poems (1862) collection for publication.

 Elizabeth Barrett Browning A pair of wedding rings StudySmarterA pair of wedding rings, pixabay.com

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Poems

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was famous, even during her own lifetime, for her poetry. Most of her reputation rests upon the success of her sonnets and love poems. However, Barrett Browning also used her writing for social activism: she often spoke out against slavery and child labor, wrote extensively about Italian politics, and was not afraid to discuss male domination of women. Her political opinions decreased her popularity, but her opinion was heard and valued.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Sonnets

Published in 1850, Sonnets from the Portuguese is a collection of 44 love sonnets that Barrett Browning wrote between 1845-1846 as her relationship with Browning began and developed. The tone of the sonnets shifts as her relationship with her future husband grows, starting out hesitant and guarded yet becoming increasingly more passionate and hopeful.

Barrett Browning was hesitant to publish the poems because of how personal they were. she eventually titled the collection Sonnets from the Portuguese - an effort to maintain some privacy by pretending the sonnets were simply translations from a foreign poet. 'Sonnet 43' is the most well-known poem of the collection, beginning 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.'

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Book with a heart StudySmarterBook with a heart, pixabay.com

Aurora Leigh

Aurora Leigh (1857) is Barrett Browning's longest work, an epic poem/novel spanning more than 11,000 lines. Its nine books are written in blank verse, and it is the first feature-length poem in English to place a female artist as the heroine and center of the plot. The heroine, Aurora Leigh, offers a first-person narrative of her youth, self-education, and pursuit of a literary career. The heroine is a highly independent woman who refuses her cousin's marriage proposal and instead focuses on building her career.

Although Aurora Leigh eventually realizes she is in love with her cousin, the main focus of the poem is on her professional life and her friendship with another woman. The poem features themes such as oppressive social roles, gender-based violence (especially in relation to prostitution), and "the woman question."

The woman question, translated from the French term "querelle des femmes," refers to the debate around whether women needed greater economic, political, and educational freedom, or should continue their roles as mothers and housewives.

In Aurora Leigh, the heroine chooses her career over a marriage. Barrett Browning sides with female liberation from the constricting social values which placed women's needs below those of their husbands and children.

Epic Poem: A long, narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds and historical events that are significant to the poet's culture.

Blank verse: Verse written in unrhymed lines, but with a set rhythm (usually iambic pentameter).

Themes in Barrett Browning's Works

Problems Faced By Women

As showcased in Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning was deeply concerned with women's place in society. Growing up, she valued Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), the influence of which shines through in much of Barrett Browning's own writing.

Much of her poetry illustrates the issues that women faced in Victorian society, from unequal opportunities in jobs to their own marriages. She was especially concerned with marital power dynamics, showcased in Aurora Leigh and even to some extent in her sonnets, where she expresses hesitancy about getting married.

This theme of reluctance around marriage was influenced by Barrett Browning's time period, in which women had very little rights of their own and were basically controlled by their husbands and fathers. Barrett Browning herself was an outlier, becoming a huge name in literature when most women were never given the chance to write anything for the public sphere.

Evils of Industrialization

As stated above, Barrett Browning was ardently opposed to slavery and child labor. During her time period, cities were becoming increasingly more industrialized, tending towards horrible working conditions that were dangerous and filthy.

Barrett Browning spoke out against these conditions in her 1843 poem 'The Cry of the Children,' which depicts children being forced to work in horrible conditions and dying young. She condemned progress and industrialization at the expense of children's safety. Barrett Browning uses religious imagery to juxtapose the morality of Christianity with the conditions and atrocities that are being allowed simply so the rich can earn more money.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Smokestacks StudySmarterSmokestacks, pixabay.com

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Biography - Key takeaways

    • Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an important English poet in the Victorian age.
    • She is best known for her love poems, specifically her sonnets.
    • She had a happy childhood at her father's estate in the countryside where she was self-educated, but her father was deeply protective and jealous of his children.
    • She suffered a spinal injury when she was 15 and had a lung ailment that impacted the rest of her life.
    • She married fellow poet Robert Browning in secret and was disinherited.
    • Her most well known works include Sonnets from the Portuguese and the epic poem Aurora Leigh
    • Some of the themes she's most well known for are problems faced by women and the evils of industrialization.

1 'First Letter Robert Browning wrote to Elizabeth Barrett Browning,' Project Gutenburg, (2005).

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Biography

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is best known for her love poetry. Her collection of 44 love sonnets, Sonnets from the Portuguese, was written for her husband during the first two years of their relationship. Aurora Leigh, a story about a girl who turns down a marriage proposal to focus on her literary career, is considered an early feminist text. 

She was afflicted by a spinal injury that she got when she was saddling her pony at 15. She also had a lung ailment, possibly tuberculosis, that affected her entire adult life. 

Her most famous poem is in Sonnets from the Portuguese. It is Sonnet 43 or more commonly known as 'How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways." It was written for Robert Browning. 

She is most famous for her love sonnets. They are written in iambic pentameter. 

Her lifelong condition worsened for two years and she became weaker and more ill. She died in her husband's arms. 

Final Elizabeth Barrett Browning Biography Quiz

Question

Who was Elizabeth Barrett Browning? 

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Answer

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an English poet and playwright in the Victorian age. She is best known for her love poems, specifically her sonnets.

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What was Barrett Browning's childhood like?

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She had a very good childhood at her father's country estate with her 11 siblings. Her family was wealthy from the Jamaican sugar industry. She was self-educated and well read. 

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What health conditions did Barrett Browning have? 

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She had a lung ailment that affected her throughout her entire life. She also had a spinal injury from saddling her pony when she was 15. 

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How was Barrett Browning perceived in most literary circles? 

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She was very popular and received a lot of praise. Her Poems collection (1844) was highly praised in literary circles and captured the attention of Robert Browning, another poet whom Barrett praised in this collection.  

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Who was Elizabeth Barrett Browning married to? 

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Fellow poet Robert Browning, who was 6 years younger than her and less known. They met after he sent her a letter thanking her for speaking highly of him in Poems. 

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What was difficult about the Browning's marriage? 

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's father disapproved of Browning and didn't want his children to marry at all. The two had to marry in secret and left the country a week later. 

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What are some of Barrett Browning's most famous works? 

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Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) and Aurora Leigh (1857). The former was a collection of love poems she had written Robert Browning when they were courting in 1845-6. The latter is now considered an early feminist text, featuring a female as the main heroine and written by a female poet. 

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What are some of Barrett Browning's biggest themes? 

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She writes extensively on a woman's place in society. She is especially focused on power dynamics in marriage. She also writes about the evils of industrialization and its effects on the disadvantaged. 

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What was the Brownings' life like in Italy? 

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They moved around a lot due to financial issues, but Elizabeth's health greatly improved. She gave birth to their child in 1849. 

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What is unique about Barrett Browning in this time period? 

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As a female in the early 19th century, she is one of the most popular and prolific writers of the Victorian age. She also was outspoken about social justice and Italian politics, which decreased her popularity but increased her influence on her moment. 

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Question

Who wrote From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV ‘Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife’?

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote this poem as part of her Sonnets from the Portuguese collection in 1850. 

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What was Sonnets from the Portuguese ?

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It was a collection of 44 love poems that Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote for Robert Browning during the first two years they were courting. The two later got married and he convinced her to publish the poems in 1850. 

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Why was the collection called Sonnets from the Portuguese? 

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Barrett Browning was not going to publish the collections for fear that they were too romantic and intimate. She titled the collection Sonnets from the Portuguese in an effort to make readers think that she was translating foreign poems instead of publishing her own. 

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Question

What is 'Sonnet 24' about?

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It is a love poem. The speaker tells her lover that their love is pure and steady because it has been created and sustained by God. She says that men cannot break them apart or tarnish their love, God is the only one who can break them apart. She also says that God's love can close off all the evil in the world. 

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What is the major imagery in Sonnet 24? 

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Knife, hand, lilies, God

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What are the major themes of Sonnet 24?

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Love conquers evil, humankind's negative influence, and God has the ultimate power and control

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What is the tone of the poem?

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The poem's tone is faithful, loving, and reverent. 

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What poetic devices are used?

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The poetic devices are simile, metaphor, symbolism, hyperbole, enjambment, and end rhyme. 

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What kind of poem is Sonnet 24? 

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It is a sonnet with iambic pentameter and an ABBA rhyme scheme. 

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What is 'Grief'?

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'Grief' is a sonnet published in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 1844 Poems collection.

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Who wrote 'Grief'?

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote 'Grief.' She was a famous Victorian poet. She suffered from a spinal injury and a lung ailment, making her bedridden for a portion of her life.  

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What was the inspiration behind 'Grief'? 

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's brother died while visiting her. He was in a boating accident and drowned. Barrett Browning blamed herself because Edward was supposed to have gone back home, but she begged him to stay with her. 

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What is 'Grief' about? 

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It is about what grief feels and looks like. Barrett Browning argues that grief is not a brief flash of emotion or passion, but rather passionless and eternal. 

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What are themes in Grief? 

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Grief is unrelenting and all-encompassing. Humans are helpless to escape grief. 

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What is some of the most noted imagery? 

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A desert and statue are the biggest. 

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What are poetic devices used in Grief? 

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Simile, extended metaphor, personification, alliteration, enjambment

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What are the two things Barrett Browning compares grief to? 

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She compares grief to a desert and a statue. This depicts that grief strips away humanity and vibrance, leaving only a cold, passionless victim.

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Why does Barrett Browning say that grief does not weep? 

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She says that if grief allowed a person to cry, it would be able to leave that person. Instead, grief takes complete control of a person's feelings and doesn't allow them to feel anything other than desperation. 

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What does Barrett Browning say grief is NOT? 

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She says it is not weeping and wailing against God. Those who show emotion and passion are not truly experiencing grief. 

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