Hello everyone! Welcome to the February edition of the clay poetry column! Since February is the month of Valentine’s Day, nothing could be better than recounting the story of two poets who fell madly in love and ran away to be married.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, known as Elizabeth Barrett before marriage, was born in England in 1806. She was a very smart child and learned Greek around six years of age. In accordance with her love for anything Grecian, she decided to write her own epic, following the style of Homer, at age ten. Her father was enamored with her work and had fifty copies privately printed. Her mother kept a scrapbook of all her poems and works, and it is said that the scrapbooks her mother kept contained “the largest collection of juvenilia of any English writer” (Murfin). She had a wide range of interests and hobbies, including studying the works of famous poets, and took her faith and religion very seriously.
Tragically, when she was in her early teen years, she was struck with a very serious illness. Her two sisters had contracted the same sickness, but they recovered fully. Sadly, Elizabeth recovered, but was left a semi-invalid for the rest of her life. Then, when Elizabeth was twenty-two, her mother passed away. Her aunt moved in to take care of the family, even though Elizabeth was an adult by that time, but her and Elizabeth disagreed on her love for literature and writing. Her aunt deemed it “unseemly” and didn’t want her to continue.
Elizabeth and her family ended up moving three times within the next few years, and finally settled down in the now-famous 50 Wimpole Street. She was frequently found sitting in her room reading and writing. Because of her frail health she didn’t have many responsibilities. Even though she often had to stay in bed, she still had many admirers. She was very pretty, smart, and charming. Many people respected her literary reputation, and she even began to impress well-known people in the English literary establishment. It is said that some of her most popular poems helped sway public opinion in favor of the Emancipation Act, which abolished slavery in the colonies. Ironically, her father’s salary depended on slavery, and after the Emancipation Act was passed, her family’s wealth suffered greatly. Her father was forced to sell his country estates, and her relationship with her father suffered under the strain. Elizabeth’s income from her literary work was accepted with much more gratitude afterwards. Her collection of poems, renamed A Drama of Exile, and other Poems, not only influenced Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, but also led Robert Browning to write a fan letter to Elizabeth.
Robert Browning wasn’t as well off as Elizabeth Barrett; however, he could hardly be called poor. His father worked at a bank and received a salary equal to that of a middle class person. His father owned over one thousand books, and those books practically became Robert’s education when he rebelled against going to school, thinking it too boring. He wrote a manuscript of poetry when he was twelve, but he destroyed it in a fury when no publisher would help him. He learned Greek, Latin, French, and Italian. He studied at the University College London at age sixteen, but left after one year despite his father’s begging him to go back to school. Robert announced that he was going to dedicate his life to literature, and remained in his father’s house until he was thirty-two and found Elizabeth Barrett. He published a long poem inspired by his favorite poet Shelley, funded by his aunt and father. It was hardly successful, but because he published it anonymously, he felt little humiliation. In 1835, he published more poems that were much more successful. Other well-known poets such as Charles Dickens, Wordsworth, and John Stuart Mill appreciated his works. Robert Browning then tried play writing, but it was fruitless. He traveled to Italy in 1835 and wrote a strange imaginary biography that could hardly be understood due to its obscurity. He almost lost his reputation completely due to this failure, but he began writing chapbooks soon after, which slowly regained his reputation and admiration. It was about this time that he found Elizabeth Barrett.
Elizabeth’s father didn’t want any of his children to marry because he wanted them to always depend upon him. However, Elizabeth continued to court Robert. They married on the 12thof September, 1846. Almost immediately, Robert and Elizabeth left for Italy, hoping the warmer temperatures would improve Elizabeth’s health and strength. They knew their elopement would bring stress and anger to their families, and they were right. Elizabeth’s father disinherited her, and her brother turned his back to her. However, the newlywed couple were happy and came to love their home in Italy, and Elizabeth’s health improved. They moved to Florence and began writing again. Elizabeth gave birth to a son, who they named Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning after his father. Elizabeth’s fame grew and Robert finally had a successful publication with a collection of dramatic monologues called Men and Women. On June 21, 1861, Elizabeth died due to her recurring bad health. Her last word was “Beautiful” as she died in her husband’s arms. Robert and his son returned to London, and his new-found fame continued. He died on December 12, 1889, finally respected and honored, his grave next to Tennyson, a very famous poet.
Below are a couple sections of poems Robert and Elizabeth authored.
Love by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
We cannot live, except thus mutually
We alternate, aware or unaware,
The reflex act of life: and when we ear
Our virtue onward most impulsively,
Most full of invocation, and to be
Most instantly compellant, certes, there
We live most life, whoever breathes most air
And counts his dying years by sun and sea.
But when a soul, by choice and conscience, doth
Throw out her full force on another soul,
The conscience and the concentration both
Make mere life, Love. For Life in perfect whole
And aim consummated, is Love in sooth,
As nature’s magnet-heat rounds pole with pole.
A Serenade at the Villa by Robert Browning
That was I, you heard last night,
When there rose no moon at all,
Nor, to pierce the strained and tight
Tent of heaven, a planet small:
Live was dead and so was light.
Not a twinkle from the fly,
Not a glimmer from the worm;
When the crickets stopped their cry,
When the owls forbore a term,
You heard music; that was I.
The Brownings persevered through hard times. Elizabeth continued searching for beauty and life in the world, even though she was mostly confined to her bed. And even though there were obstacles to overcome in their marriage, they found a way to be happy with one another. While I don’t suggest you disobey your parents and run off with your true love, I do encourage you to look at the positive in your life rather than the negative. Even when it’s hard, pray to God, read the Bible, and He will give you joy and strength. Until next time!
Murfin, Patrick. “Elizabeth and Robert—The Great Elopement.” Blogspot. Monday, September 12, 2016. http://patrickmurfin.blogspot.com/2016/09/elizabeth-and-robertthe-great-elopement.html. 15 January, 2019.
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Poetry Foundation. www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/elizabeth-barrett-browning%5C. 18 January, 2019.
“Love.” Poetry Foundation.www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50307/love-56d22d49aac67. 18 January, 2019.