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Elizabeth Barret Browning

The couple Elizabeth Browning and her husband Robert Browning, has to qualify as one of the high profile couples of their times. And it is worth a mention that it was Elizabeth who shot to fame first and not Robert, as most people would think. Elizabeth Moulton Barrett, the English poetess and political thinker, not to mention, a feminist as well, was born on the 6th of March, 1806 in Durham, England. She was followed by the birth of eleven more children. With such a large family, Elizabeth was lucky that her father, Edward Barrett, had amassed a considerable fortune from his Jamaican sugar plantations which was tended to by slaves. Not surprisingly, she lived a more then contented childhood, her favorite past times including riding her pony around and involving herself in family theatrical productions. Elizabeth was tutored at home and learnt many languages like Greek and Portuguese while she was quite young. She had a penchant for reading and had read Shakespearean plays at an age when most of us would have struggled to comprehend his style. In fact, she forced herself to learn Hebrew so that she could read the Old Testament in its entirety. Such interest in literature had inculcated the love for writing in her and laid the foundation for her future works. When she was only 13, with help from her father she published her first set of poems.

Growing up

Her brothers left to London when she was 15 and hence she went into depression. Having been with them for so long, she could not take the separation lightly and as a consequence, fell ill. Viral infection, Fever, Measles one after other the illnesses followed. She even hurt her spine from a fall and though she recovered in a year, she never was in full fitness for the rest of her life. When she was 21 her mother died, followed by many more such unfortunate events like the death of some of her brothers, her prolonged illness, and finally, loss of family fortunes due to the abolition of slavery. But even after their palatial house was sold, they had much left over to live comfortably in London. By this time, she had written enough poems to gain recognition. “The Seraphin and other poems,” was the first set of poems she published under her own name. This was in 1838. Due to ill health, she moved to Devonshire the same year. Edward, one of her brothers, also moved along with her, but drowned soon and this left her in a state of shock for quite some time afterward.

The important days

In 1844, she created “Poems”, a collection which was to have a profound influence on her life. It was critically acclaimed and the English poet Robert Browning liked the poems so much that he wrote to her. In due time, they met and the fact that she was six years elder to him did not stop them from falling in love with each other. They became engaged in 1845. The autocratic person that Elizabeth’s father was, he disapproved of the courtship and the imminent engagement. But disregarding this, the couple entered into wedlock in St Marylebone’s Church, on the 12th of September, 1846 and a week later, they eloped to the beautiful city of Florence in Italy. This proved to be a boon in disguise for Elizabeth as the change from the polluted air of England to the fresher one in Italy did her health a world of good. In 1849, she gave birth to their only child whom they christened Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning and affectionately called “Pen.” With her renewed health, she wrote vigorously and took up issues which were causing much debate in contemporary society, like slavery abolition, Italian nationalism, upliftment of women in the Victorian society and the like. When she was 50, she finished her verse-novel Aurora Leigh in which she writes about an orphan and a young budding poet, Aurora Leigh who resides in England with an unkindly aunt. It is when Aurora is trying to break free and become a poet that her wealthy cousin asks her to marry him and also says that women do not have the capacity to write significant poetry. This irks Aurora and she rejects his proposal. She goes on to become a successful poet and the tale ends with both of them having realized the other gender’s role in society and marrying each other. She had used contemporary settings and culture to debate the question of women cowing down to men. This novel-poem was adapted by many but very few came close to the success that the original version of Elizabeth’s met.

Love for Florence

Elizabeth had made clear her love for Florence many times. In Florence, Italy, Elizabeth and Robert lived in a splendid villa called Palazzo Guidi where a Russian prince had earlier resided. Elizabeth fondly called the place “Casa Guidi.” She had a very strong liking for Italy. “I love Italy-I love my Florence…Florence is my chimney-corner where I can sulk and be happy,” she wrote to Robert’s friend once. She has twice described the river Arno which runs through Florence as a silver arrow in the Casa Guidi Windows.

Casa Guidi Window

In 1851, her fight for the cause of Italian nationalism made her write a two-part poem, “Casa Guidi Windows” This is one of her most important creations and reveals her amazing intellect. Sitting at her home in Florence, she was troubled to see Italy’s desperate struggle for freedom. Italy, at that time, was fighting against Austria and Napoleon III was helping Italy win freedom. She has also expressed splendid imagery and acute command over language in the poem. Part one talks about Risorgimento, Italy’s struggle for political autonomy. She wrote the second part three years hence and this time, concentrated on Barrett Browning’s foresight that the Risorgimento would not be without pain and heartbreak. The poem also talks about legends like Savonarola. Elizabeth gives a charming end to the poem when she writes about her baby boy, whom she calls “Florentine.” She attached special importance to the Casa Guidi villa where she and Robert spent their days. Many a time she had written to friends and family about the lavishness of the house and how cheap they got the 7 roomed house for.

Her other works

Elizabeth wrote many of her major works from Casa Guidi. Sonnets from the Portuguese, Aurora Leigh, Poems before Congress, not to mention Casa Guidi Windows, were all written in the calm of the house in Casa Guidi. ‘Portuguese’ was how Robert called the dark haired Elizabeth. She had visitors from all over the world including art critics, story tellers, and poets. It is very difficult to pen down a proper Sonnet in English but Elizabeth was one of the master sonneteers that the English language has had as is evident by her “Sonnets from the Portuguese” which she wrote under a pseudonym. She also regularly wrote for The Athenaeum. “Last poems” was published in 1862 after her death and it contains most of her popular lyrics.

Elizabeth, as a poet

As a poet, she managed to break the back of the contemporary belief that women cannot write significant poetry. She had set a bench mark which other women writers strove to achieve and in the process enhanced the status of women in the literary society. She touched on important issues burning in the society like women rights and Italian Nationalism. Once she was nominated for the title of “Poet Laureate” but the title went to Tennyson. But the very fact that in the middle of the 19th century a woman was considered for such a prestigious title was indication of her prowess in poetry and also her popularity in literary circles. In fact, her repute was higher than Robert’s during her entire lifetime.

Her Final Days

Once Hans Christian Anderson visited the couple while they were in Rome and recited the “Ugly Duckling” to the young crowd which had gathered. In praise of Hans, Elizabeth wrote her last poem, “North and South.” She had by then had a terrible six miscarriages and combined with Tuberculosis and spinal pain, her condition worsened by the day. Her addiction to Morphine-which she took as a pain-killer-did not make things easier for her, though they were largely responsible for most of her pain free nights. Her appearance worsened and in her final months, she almost looked like a corpse and was living purely on the encouragement given by “Pen” who was by her side all time. On 29th June 1861, Elizabeth died in Robert’s arms while he was feeding her. She was buried in the famous ‘English’ cemetery in Florence where other significant poets and artistes too were buried. Robert then left for England and never returned to Florence again. One major unhappiness that Elizabeth might still be carrying is the fact that she never got to see a free Italy-as she hoped- while she was alive.

Elizabeth turned out to be a poetess par excellence in the men-dominated society of the 19th century. Her charm never failed to impress and when she died writer Edward Fitzgerald famously quoted thus: “Mrs. Browning’s death is a relief to me. No more Aurora Leighs, thank God! She was a genius.”