Born in 1806 at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, England, Elizabeth Barrett, was an English poet of the Romantic Movement. The oldest of twelve children, Elizabeth
was the first in her family born in England in over two hundred years. For
centuries, the Barrett family, who were part Creole, had lived in Jamaica,
where they owned sugar plantations and relied on slave labor. Elizabeth's
father, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, chose to raise his family in England,
while his fortune grew in Jamaica. Educated at home, Elizabeth apparently had
read passages from Paradise Lost and a number of Shakespearean plays,
among other great works, before the age of ten. By her twelfth year she had
written her first "epic" poem, which consisted of four books of
rhyming couplets. Two years later, Elizabeth developed a lung ailment that
plagued her for the rest of her life. Doctors began treating her with morphine,
which she would take until her death. While saddling a pony when she was
fifteen, Elizabeth also suffered a spinal injury. Despite her ailments, her
education continued to flourish. Throughout her teenage years, Elizabeth taught
herself Hebrew so that she could read the Old Testament; her interests later
turned to Greek studies. Accompanying her appetite for the classics was a
passionate enthusiasm for her Christian faith. She became active in the Bible
and Missionary Societies of her church.
In 1826 Elizabeth anonymously published her collection An Essay on Mind
and Other Poems. Two years later, her mother passed away. The slow
abolition of slavery in England and mismanagement of the plantations depleted
the Barrett's income, and in 1832, Elizabeth's father sold his rural estate at
a public auction. He moved his family to a coastal town and rented cottages for
the next three years, before settling permanently in London. While living on
the sea coast, Elizabeth published her translation of Prometheus Bound
(1833), by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus.
Gaining notoriety for her work in the 1830s, Elizabeth continued to live in
her father's London house under his tyrannical rule. He began sending
Elizabeth's younger siblings to Jamaica to help with the family's estates.
Elizabeth bitterly opposed slavery and did not want her siblings sent away.
During this time, she wrote The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838),
expressing Christian sentiments in the form of classical Greek tragedy. Due to
her weakening disposition she was forced to spend a year at the sea of Torquay
accompanied by her brother Edward, whom she referred to as "Bro." He
drowned later that year while sailing at Torquay and Elizabeth returned home
emotionally broken, becoming an invalid and a recluse. She spent the next five
years in her bedroom at her father's home. She continued writing, however, and
in 1844 produced a collection entitled simply Poems. This volume gained
the attention of poet Robert Browning,
whose work Elizabeth had praised in one of her poems, and he wrote her a
Elizabeth and Robert, who was six years her junior, exchanged 574 letters
over the next twenty months. Immortalized in 1930 in the play The Barretts
of Wimpole Street, by Rudolf Besier (1878-1942), their romance was bitterly
opposed by her father, who did not want any of his children to marry. In 1846,
the couple eloped and settled in Florence, Italy, where Elizabeth's health
improved and she bore a son, Robert Wideman Browning. Her father never spoke to
her again. Elizabeth's Sonnets from the Portuguese, dedicated to her
husband and written in secret before her marriage, was published in 1850.
Critics generally consider the Sonnetsone of the most widely known
collections of love lyrics in Englishto be her best work. Admirers have
compared her imagery to Shakespeare
and her use of the Italian form to Petrarch.
Political and social themes embody Elizabeth's later work. She expressed her
intense sympathy for the struggle for the unification of Italy in Casa Guidi
Windows (1848-51) and Poems Before Congress (1860). In 1857 Browning
published her verse novel Aurora Leigh, which portrays male domination
of a woman. In her poetry she also addressed the oppression of the Italians by
the Austrians, the child labor mines and mills of England, and slavery, among
other social injustices. Although this decreased her popularity, Elizabeth was
heard and recognized around Europe.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence on June 29, 1861.