Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Browning, Elizabeth Barrett
BROWNING, ELIZABETH BARRETT (1809–1861), poetess, was born at Burn Hall, Durham, on 6 March 1809. She was the eldest daughter of Edward Moulton, and was christened by the names of Elizabeth Barrett. Not long afterwards Mr. Moulton, himself succeeding to some property, took the name of Barrett. In after times Mrs. Browning signed herself at length as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her mother was Mary Graham, the daughter of a Mr. Graham, afterwards known as Graham Clarke of Feltham in Northumberland. Soon after the child's birth her parents brought her southwards to Hope End, near Ledbury in Herefordshire, where Mr. Barrett possessed a considerable estate, and had built himself a country house, with Moorish windows and turrets. It is described by one of his family as standing in a lovely park among trees and sloping hills all sprinkled with sheep. The house, too, was very beautiful, and this same lady remembers the great hall with the organ in it, and more especially 'Elizabeth's room,' a lofty chamber with a stained glass window casting lights across the floor, and upon little Elizabeth as she used to sit propped against the wall with her hair falling all about her face, a childlike fairy figure. Elizabeth was famed among the children for her skill with her white roses; she had a bower of her own all overgrown with their sprays. The roses are still blooming for the readers of the 'Lost Bower,' 'clear as once beneath the sunshine.'
Another favourite device of the child's was that of a man of flowers laid out in beds upon the lawn; a huge giant wrought of spade, 'eyes of gentianella's azure, staring, winking at the skies' (see 'Hector in the Garden'). Elizabeth's gift for learning was extraordinary; at eight years old she had a tutor and could read Homer in the original, holding her book in one hand and nursing her doll on the other arm. She has said herself that in those days 'the Greeks were her demi-gods.' 'She dreamed more of Agamemnon than of Moses her black pony.' At the same age she too began to write poems. When she was about eleven or twelve her great epic of the 'Battle of Marathon' was written in four books, and her father had it printed; 'papa was bent upon spoiling me,' she writes. A cousin remembers a certain ode, which the little girl recited to her father on his birthday about this time. This cousin used to pay visits to Hope End, where their common grandmother would also come and stay. The old lady did not approve of these readings and writing, and used to say she had far rather see Elizabeth's hemming more carefully finished off than hear of all this Greek. Elizabeth was growing up meanwhile under happy influences. She had brothers and sisters in her home, her life was not all study, she had the best of company, that of happy children, as well as of all bright and natural things. She was fond of riding, she loved her gardens, her woodland playground. As she grew older she used to rive a pony and go further afield. A child of those days flying in terror along one of these steep Herefordshire lanes, perhaps frightened by a cow's horns beyond the hedge, still describes being overtaken by a young girl in a pony carriage with a pale spiritual face and a profusion of dark curls, who suddenly caught her up into safety and drove rapidly away with her. All these scenes are turned to account in 'Aurora Leigh.' One day, when Elizabeth was about fifteen, the young girl, impatient for her ride, tried to saddle her pony alone, in a field, and fell with the saddle upon her, in some way injuring her spine so seriously that she was for years upon her back.
She was about twenty when her mother's last illness began, and at the same time some money catastrophe (the result of other people's misdeeds) overtook Mr. Barrett. He would not allow his wife to be troubled or told of this crisis in his affairs, and compounded at an enormous cost with his creditors, materially diminishing his income for life, so as to put off any change in the ways at Hope End until change could trouble the sick lady no more. After Mrs. Barrett's death, when Elizabeth was a little over twenty, they came away, leaving Hope End among the hills for ever. 'Beautiful, beautiful hills,' Miss Barrett wrote long afterwards from her closed sick room in London, 'and yet not for the whole world's beauty would I stand among the sunshine and shadow of them any more: it would be a mockery, like the taking back of a broken flower to its stalk' (see Letters of E. B. Browning to R. H. Horne).
The family spent two years at Sidmouth and then came to London, where Mr. Barrett bought a house at 74 Gloucester Place. Elizabeth Barrett had published the 'Essay on Mind' at seventeen years of age, 'Prometheus' and other poems at twenty-six; she was twenty-seven when the 'Seraphim' came out. Her continued delicacy kept her for months at a time a prisoner to her room, but she was becoming known to the world. 'Prometheus' is reviewed in the 'Quarterly Review' for 1840, and there Miss Barrett's name comes second among a list of the most accomplished women of those days. Her noble poem on Cowper's grave was republished with the ‘Seraphim,’ on which (whatever her later opinion may have been) she at the time seems to have set small count; all the remaining copies of the book being locked away, she writes, in the ‘wardrobe in her father's bedroom,’ entombed as safely as Œdipus among the olives. In a surviving copy of this book, belonging to Mr. J. Dykes Campbell, there is an added stanza to the image of God, never yet printed, and many a faint correction in her delicate handwriting. From Gloucester Place Miss Barrett went an unwilling exile for her health's sake to Torquay, where the tragedy occurred which ‘gave a nightmare to her life for ever.’ Her brother had come to see her and to be comforted by her for some trouble of his own, when he was accidentally drowned, under circumstances of torturing suspense, which added to the shock. All that year the sea beating upon the shore sounded to her as a dirge, she says, in a letter to Miss Mitford. It was long before Miss Barrett's health was sufficiently restored to allow of her being brought home to Gloucester Place, where many years passed away in the confinement of a sick room, to which few besides the members of her own family were admitted. Among these exceptions were to be found Miss Mitford, who would travel forty miles to see her for an hour, Mrs. Jameson, and above all Mr. Kenyon, the ‘friend and dearest cousin’ to whom she afterwards dedicated ‘Aurora Leigh.’ Mr. Kenyon had an almost fatherly affection for her, and from the first recognised his young relative's genius. He was her constant visitor and link with the outside world. As Miss Barrett lay on her couch with her dog Flush at her feet, Miss Mitford describes her as reading ‘books in almost every language,’ giving herself heart and soul to poetry. She also occupied herself with prose, writing literary articles for the ‘Athenæum,’ and contributing to a modern rendering of Chaucer, which was then being edited by her unknown friend, Mr. R. H. Horne. These early letters of Mrs. Browning to Mr. Horne, published after her death with her husband's sanction, are full of the suggestions of her fancy; as for instance, ‘Sappho who broke off a fragment of her soul for us to guess at.’ Of herself she once writes (apparently in answer to some question of Mr. Horne's): ‘My story amounts to the knife-grinder's, with nothing at all for a catastrophe! A bird in a cage would have as good a story; most of my events and nearly all my intense pleasure have passed in my thoughts.’
In 1843 Miss Barrett wrote the ‘Cry of the Children,’ so often quoted. It was suggested by the report of the commissioners appointed to investigate the subject of the employment of young children. In the early part of 1846 she assisted Mrs. Jameson, who was preparing a volume of collected papers, by contributing a translation from the ‘Odyssey.’ About this time Mr. Kenyon first brought Mr. Browning as a visitor to the house. It must have been about this time that Miss Barrett, writing to Mrs. Jameson, says, in a warm and grateful letter in the possession of Mrs. Oliphant: ‘First I was drawn to you, then I was and am bound to you, but I do not move into the confessional notwithstanding my own heart and yours.’
In ‘Lady Geraldine's Courtship’ Miss Barrett had written of Browning among other poets as of the ‘pomegranate which, if cut deep down the middle, shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity.’ Very soon after their first acquaintance they became engaged, and were married in the autumn of the same year, 1846. The ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ are among the loveliest in the English language, and were written in secret by Mrs. Browning before her marriage, although they were not shown to her husband till long afterwards. He himself had once called her ‘his Portuguese’ (see Mrs. Browning's ‘Caterina to Camoens’), and she had replied by writing these sonnets. There is a quality in them which is beyond words; an echo from afar which belongs to the highest human expression of feeling. Leigh Hunt may be quoted as expressing his wonder at the marvellous beauty, ‘the entire worthiness and loveliness’ of these sonnets. Some time in 1846 the doctors had declared that Miss Barrett's life depended upon her leaving England for the winter, and immediately after their marriage Mr. Browning took his wife abroad. Mrs. Jameson was at Paris when Mr. and Mrs. Browning arrived there. In the life of Mrs. Jameson, by her niece, Mrs. Macpherson, there is an interesting description of the meeting and the surprise, and of their all journeying together southwards by Avignon and Vaucluse. They came to a rest at Pisa, whence Mrs. Browning writes to her old friend, Mr. Horne, to tell him of her marriage, and she adds that Mrs. Jameson calls her, notwithstanding all the emotion and fatigue of the last six weeks, rather ‘transformed’ than improved. From Pisa the new married pair went to Florence, where they finally settled, and where their boy was born in 1849. Those among us who only knew Mrs. Browning as a wife and as a mother have found it difficult to realise her life under any other conditions, so vivid and complete is the image of her peaceful home, of its fireside where the logs are burning, and the mistress established on her sofa, with her little boy curled up by her side, the door opening and shutting meanwhile to the quick step of the master of the house, and to the life of the world without, coming to find her in her quiet corner. We can recall the slight figure in its black silk dress, the writing apparatus by the sofa, the tiny inkstand, the quill-nibbed pen-holder, the unpretentious implements of her work. ‘She was a little woman; she liked little things.’ Her miniature editions of the classics are still carefully preserved, with her name written in each in her sensitive fine handwriting, and always her husband's name added above her own, for she dedicated all her books to him: it was a fancy that she had. Nathaniel Hawthrone, who visited Mrs. Browning at Florence, has described her as ‘a pale small person scarcely embodied at all,’ at any rate only substantial enough to put forth her ‘slender fingers to be grasped, and to speak with a shrill yet sweet tenuity of voice.’ ‘It is wonderful,’ he says, ‘to see how small she is, how pale her cheek, how bright and dark her eyes. There is not such another figure in the world, and her black ringlets cluster down into her neck and make her face look whiter.’ There is another description of Mrs. Browning by an American (also quoted in the papers of the Browning Society), ‘a soul of fire enclosed in a shell of pearl,’ and, in common with all who knew her best, the writer dwells on her sweetness of temper and purity of spirit.
Mrs. Browning has had readers worthy of her genius. The princess of poets, says George Macdonald, in idea she is noble, in phrase magnificent. When Wordsworth died, the ‘Athenæum’ urged that Mrs. Browning should succeed him as poet laureate. Mr. Ruskin and George Eliot were among her readers. ‘I have lately read again with great delight Mrs. Browning's “Casa Guidi Windows,”’ George Eliot writes (in the ‘Memoirs’ published by Mr. J. W. Cross); ‘it contains, among other admirable things, a very noble expression of what I believe to be the true relation of the religious mind of the past to that of the present.’ Hans Andersen was another of her devoted friends. Mrs. Browning writes of him to Mr. Thackeray ‘as delighting us all, more especially the children.’ The author of ‘Vanity Fair’ had a most special feeling of tender, admiring respect and affection for Mrs. Browning.
Among the Brownings' greatest friends in Italy were Mr. and Mrs. Story, with whom they lived during two or three summers at Siena in villeggiatura. Walter Savage Landor found first at Siena, and then at Florence, a refuge and a home with Mr. and Mrs. Browning after he had been left desolate—‘a Lear whose own were unkind’ (Colvin, Life of Landor). Landor finally settled down near the Brownings in Florence, being established by their care in the house of a former maid of Mrs. Browning's, who had married an Italian, and who was living close to Casa Guidi. Mr. Story has written an interesting letter about Casa Guidi prefixed to the American edition of Mrs. Browning's works. He describes the square ante-room with its pictures, and the pianoforte where ‘her young Florentine’ already strikes the keys, the little dining-room covered with tapestry, the large drawing-room where she always sat: ‘It opens upon a balcony fitted with plants, and looks out upon the iron-grey church of Santa Felice’ (Hawthorne speaks in his ‘Memoirs’ of listening from this room to the sound of the chanting from the opposite church). Mr. Story goes on to write of the tapestry-covered walls, and old pictures of saints that stare out sadly from their carved frames of black wood; of the ‘large book-cases brimming over with learned-looking books, tables covered with more gaily bound volumes, the gift of brother authors, Dante's grave profile, a cast of Keats's 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; a quaint mirror, easy chairs and sofas, a hundred nothings, were all massed in this room.’ Mrs. Browning used to sit in a low armchair near the door; a small writing-table, strewn with writing materials and newspapers, was always by her side. It was here she wrote ‘Casa Guidi Windows’ and ‘Aurora Leigh,’ which the authoress herself calls ‘the most mature of my works, the one into which my highest convictions of work and art have entered’ (see preface of Aurora Leigh). The poem is full of beauty from the first page to the last. The opening scenes in Italy, the impression of light, of silence, the beautiful Italian mother, the austere father with his open books, the death of the mother, who lies laid out for burial in her red silk dress, the epitaph, ‘Weep for an infant too young to weep much, when death removed this mother;’ Aurora's journey to her father's old home, her lonely terror of England, the slow yielding of her nature to its silent beauty, her friendship with her cousin, Romney Leigh, their saddening, widening knowledge of the burden and sorrow of the life around, and the way this knowledge influences both their fates, all is described with that irresistible fervour which is the translation of the essence of things into words—of their very soul into common life. When the manuscript of ‘Aurora Leigh’ was nearly finished, the Brownings came over to England for a time, and at Marseilles, by some oversight, the box was lost in which the manuscript had been packed. In this same box were also carefully put away certain velvet suits and lace collars, in which the little son was to make his appearance among his English relatives. Mrs. Browning's chief concern was not for her manuscripts, but for the loss of her little boy's wardrobe, which had been devised with so much tender motherly care and pride. Happily one of her brothers was at Marseilles, and the box was discovered stowed away in some cellar at the customs there. The happy influence of Mrs. Browning's marriage is shown in the added beauty and vivid flash of reality of her later poetry, although the husband and wife carefully abstained from reading each other's work while it was going on. In Leigh Hunt's ‘Correspondence,’ vol. ii., there is a joint letter from Mr. and Mrs. Browning, dated Bagni di Lucca, in which mention is made of Leigh Hunt's praise of ‘Aurora Leigh:’ ‘I am still too near the production of “Aurora Leigh” to be able to see it all.’ Mr. Browning says: ‘My wife used to write it and lay it down to hear our child spell, or when a visitor came in it was thrust under the cushions then. At Paris, a year ago last March, she gave me the first six books to read, I never having seen a line before. She then wrote the rest and transcribed them in London, where I read them also. I wish in one sense that I had written and she had read it.’
Mrs. Browning's later poems chiefly concerned public affairs, and the interests of Italy so near her heart. Mrs. Kemble quotes with admiration the noble poem of the ‘Court Lady,’ included in the ‘Poems before Congress.’
Mrs. Browning's feeling for Napoleon III was the expression of her warm gratitude for the liberator of her adopted country; her own enthusiasm coloured her impressions of those who appealed to her generous imagination.
‘In melodiousness and splendour of poetic gift Mrs. Browning stands, to the best of my knowledge, first among women,’ says a critic (P. Bayne, Great Englishwomen). She may not, as he goes on to say, have the knowledge of life, the insight into character, the comprehensiveness of some, but we must all agree that a poet's far more essential qualities are hers, usefulness, fervour, a noble aspiration, and, above all, tender, far-reaching nature, loving and beloved, and touching the hearts of her readers with some virtue from its depths. She seemed even in her life something of a spirit, and her view of life's sorrow and shame, of its beauty and eternal hope, is something like that which one might imagine a spirit's to be.
It has been said that the news of the death of Cavour, coming when she was very ill, hastened her own. Elizabeth Barrett Browning died at Florence 30 June 1861. A tablet has been placed to her memory on the walls of Casa Guidi. It was voted by the municipality of Florence, and written by Tommaseo—‘Quì scrisse e morì E.B.B., che in cuore di donna conciliava scienze di dotto e spirito di poeta e fece del suo verso aureo anello fra Italia e Inghilterra. Pose questa memoria Firenze grata, 1861.’
Mrs. Browning's works are as follows:—1. ‘An Essay on Mind, with other Poems,’ 12mo, 1826; anonymous, dropped by the author, but reprinted (by R. H. Shepherd) in ‘The Earlier Poems of E. B. Browning,’ 1826–33, 12mo, 1878. 2. ‘Prometheus Bound: translated from the Greek of Æschylus, and Miscellaneous Poems by the author of “An Essay on Mind,” with other Poems,’ 8vo, 1833; anonymous, dropped by the author, but the miscellaneous poems reprinted in ‘The Earlier Poems,’ &c. mentioned under 1. The ‘Prometheus Bound’ was rewritten and printed in 5. 3. ‘The Seraphim, and other Poems,’ by E. B. Barrett, author of ‘A Translation of the Prometheus Bound,’ &c., 12mo, 1838. 4. ‘Poems by E. Barrett Barrett,’ author of ‘The Seraphim,’ &c., 2 vols. 12mo, 1844. Preface says, all written later than 3. 5. ‘Poems by E. B. Browning,’ 2nd edition, 2 vols. 12mo, 1850, containing new poems and an entirely new version of the ‘Prometheus.’ 3rd edition, 1853; 4th, 1856, &c. 6. ‘Casa Guidi Windows,’ a poem by E. B. Browning, 12mo, 1851. 7. ‘Aurora Leigh,’ by E. B. Browning, 8vo, 1857; 2nd edition same year, 18th edition 1884. 8. ‘Poems before Congress,’ by E. B. Browning, 12mo, 1860. 9. ‘Last Poems,’ by E. B. Browning, 12mo, 1862. Posthumous, edited by Robert Browning, who states that there are included some translations written in early life. 10. ‘The Greek Christian Poets, and the English Poets,’ by E. B. Browning, 12mo, 1863. Posthumous, edited by Robert Browning, who states these (prose essays and translations) were published in the ‘Athenæum’ in 1842. 11. ‘Selections from Poems by E. B. Browning,’ edited by Robert Browning, first series, 12mo, 1866, reprinted in Tauchnitz series. 12. ‘Selections,’ &c., second series, 12mo, 1880. 13. 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship,' illustrated by Barton, 1876. 14. 'Rhyme of the Duchess May,' illustrated by M. B. Morrell, 1873. There are many American editions and selections.
[Personal information from Miss Browning, Lady Carmichael, and Mr. J. Dykes Campbell (secretary of the Browning Society); Horne's Letters of E. B. Browning, ed. Stoddard; Miss Mitford's Recollections of a Literary Life; British Encyclopædia, art 'Browning;' Macmillan's Magazine, vol. iv.: Quarterly Review, 1840; Biographie Générale, parts i. and ii.; Bayne's Two Great Englishwomen; Forster's and Colvin's Lives of Landor; Revue Littéraire, art. by Leo Quesnel on Mrs. Browning; Field's Yesterdays with Authors; Ireland's Bibliography of Leigh Hunt; Leigh Hunt's Correspondence, ii. 264; Mrs. Jameson's Memoirs; Browning Society's Papers, Nos. 1 and 2.]