Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett, an English poet of the Romantic Movement, was born in 1806 at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, England. 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 1830's, 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 letter.

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 Sonnets—one of the most widely known collections of love lyrics in English—to 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.

Source: Poets.org: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/152


Mother and Son

Dead! One of them shot by the sea in the east,
   And one of them shot in the west by the sea.
Dead! both my boys! When you sit at the feast
   And are wanting a great song for Italy free,
      Let none look at me!

Yet I was a poetess only last year,
   And good at my art, for a woman, men said;
But this woman, this, who is agonized here,
   — The east sea and west sea rhyme on in her head
      For ever instead.

What art can a woman be good at? Oh, vain!
   What art is she good at, but hurting her breast
With the milk-teeth of babes, and a smile at the pain?
   Ah boys, how you hurt! you were strong as you pressed,
      And I proud, by that test.

What art’s for a woman? To hold on her knees
   Both darlings! to feel all their arms round her throat,
Cling, strangle a little! to sew by degrees
   And ’broider the long-clothes and neat little coat;
      To dream and to doat.

To teach them ... It stings there! I made them indeed
   Speak plain the word country. I taught them, no doubt,
That a country’s a thing men should die for at need.
   I prated of liberty, rights, and about
      The tyrant cast out.

And when their eyes flashed... O my beautiful eyes!...
   I exulted; nay, let them go forth at the wheels
Of the guns, and denied not. But then the surprise
   When one sits quite alone! Then one weeps, then one kneels!
      God, how the house feels!

At first, happy news came, in gay letters moiled
   With my kisses, — of camp-life and glory, and how
They both loved me; and, soon coming home to be spoiled
   In return would fan off every fly from my brow
      With their green laurel-bough.

Then was triumph at Turin: Ancona was free!
   And some one came out of the cheers in the street,
With a face pale as stone, to say something to me.
   My Guido was dead! I fell down at his feet,
      While they cheered in the street.

I bore it; friends soothed me; my grief looked sublime
   As the ransom of Italy. One boy remained
To be leant on and walked with, recalling the time
   When the first grew immortal, while both of us strained
      To the height he had gained.

And letters still came, shorter, sadder, more strong,
   Writ now but in one hand, “I was not to faint, —
One loved me for two — would be with me ere long:
   And Viva l’ Italia!he died for, our saint,
      Who forbids our complaint.”

My Nanni would add, “he was safe, and aware
   Of a presence that turned off the balls, — was imprest
It was Guido himself, who knew what I could bear,
   And how ’twas impossible, quite dispossessed,
      To live on for the rest.”

On which, without pause, up the telegraph line
   Swept smoothly the next news from Gaeta: —
Tell his mother.
Ah, ah, ‘his,’ ‘their’ mother, — not ‘mine,’
   No voice says “My mother” again to me. What!
      You think Guido forgot?

Are souls straight so happy that, dizzy with Heaven,
   They drop earth’s affections, conceive not of woe?
I think not. Themselves were too lately forgiven
   Through THAT Love and Sorrow which reconciled so
      The Above and Below.

O Christ of the five wounds, who look’dst through the dark
   To the face of Thy mother! consider, I pray,
How we common mothers stand desolate, mark,
   Whose sons, not being Christs, die with eyes turned away,
      And no last word to say!

Both boys dead? but that’s out of nature. We all
   Have been patriots, yet each house must always keep one.
’Twere imbecile, hewing out roads to a wall;
   And, when Italy ’s made, for what end is it done
      If we have not a son?

Ah, ah, ah! when Gaeta’s taken, what then?
   When the fair wicked queen sits no more at her sport
Of the fire-balls of death crashing souls out of men?
   When the guns of Cavalli with final retort
      Have cut the game short?

When Venice and Rome keep their new jubilee,
   When your flag takes all heaven for its white, green, and red,
When you have your country from mountain to sea,
   When King Victor has Italy’s crown on his head,
      (And I have my Dead) —

What then? Do not mock me. Ah, ring your bells low,
   And burn your lights faintly! My country is there,
Above the star pricked by the last peak of snow:
   My Italy ’s THERE, with my brave civic Pair,
      To disfranchise despair!

Forgive me. Some women bear children in strength,
   And bite back the cry of their pain in self-scorn;
But the birth-pangs of nations will wring us at length
   Into wail such as this — and we sit on forlorn
      When the man-child is born.

Dead! One of them shot by the sea in the east,
   And one of them shot in the west by the sea.
Both! both my boys! If in keeping the feast
   You want a great song for your Italy free,
      Let none look at me!