June 29 Poet of the Spirit - Elizabeth Barret Browning
Today we travel to Florence in Italy where the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning died. Married to another poet – Robert Browning, she had become so highly regarded towards the end of her life and she died at a young age of 55, that by 1850, the year of Wordsworth’s death, she was prominently mentioned as a possible successor to the poet laureateship and was a popular a rival to Tennyson. She died in the morning of the 29th of June 1861 in the Casa Guidi in Florence, seemingly in ecstasy, in her beloveds arms. Telling her husband of her love for him, she gave him her blessing and "smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl's.... Her last words were... 'It is Beautiful'.
She had a brilliant mind and in spite of fragile health and a controlling father she was able to constantly feed her intellect. Throughout her teenage years, Elizabeth taught herself Hebrew so that she could read the Old Testament; and then her interests turned to Greek studies. Accompanying her appetite for the classics was a passionate enthusiasm for her Christian faith. Gripped in her younger years by reading Milton’s Paradise Lost (see pod of Apr 27 ) and Dante’s Divine Comedy (see pod of Jan 27) many scholars have since traced their influence in various poems. She became active in the Bible and Missionary Societies of the church. For centuries, her family, who were part Creole, had lived in Jamaica, where they owned sugar plantations and Elizabeth was the first in her family to be born in England for two hundred years.
At the age of 15, she injured her spine when she was attempting to saddle her pony and for the rest of her life she was physically limited, but it didn’t limit either her spirit or mind. A few years later the breaking of a blood vessel in the chest left her with a weakened constitution and a chronic cough and she was forced to spend a year at the seaside town of Torquay on the southern coast of England, accompanied by her brother who tragically drowned later that year while sailing. Browning returned home emotionally broken, and became an invalid and a recluse spending the next five years in her bedroom at her father's home. However, she continued writing, and made her name known in literary circles by publishing The Seraphim and Other Poems. The long poetic drama of 78 pages presents the conversation of two angels in heaven retelling portions of the Old and New Testaments, and commenting on the Crucifixion that was then taking place. However, her fame extended beyond literary circles with a collection entitled simply Poems. This made her one of the most popular writers in the country, and inspired Robert Browning to write to her. He wrote, "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett," praising their "fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought. He was six years her junior, and they exchanged 574 letters over the next twenty months. Their romance was bitterly opposed by her tyrannical father, who did not want any of his children to marry. The couple secretly married in Marylebone and 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.
Her work was so prolific she is now known as a Romantic Poet (her sonnets) , an early feminist poet (Aurora Leigh), and a religious poet . She says in her writing, "We want the sense of the saturation of Christ's blood upon the souls of our poets, that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation. She believed that "Christ's religion is essentially poetry – poetry glorified". In the correspondence that she kept with the Reverend William Merry from 1843 to 1844 on predestination and salvation by works, she identifies herself as a Congregationalist: "I am not a Baptist — but a Congregational Christian, — in the holding of my private opinions. Towards the end of her life she became fascinated by Spiritualism and the Occult.
She is probably most fondly remember for her love sonnets which at her husband's insistence, were included in her second edition of Poems included her love sonnets; as a result, her popularity increased (as well as critical regard), and her artistic position was confirmed. How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of being and ideal grace. I love thee to the level of every day's Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for right. I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. I love thee with the passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith. I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.