February 14, 2011

Feb 14 – How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Happy Valentine’s Day! Being the self-confessed, romantic that I am, I feel compelled today to write about someone whose writings personify ‘love’.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a poet during The Romantic Movement, which was actually a literary ‘rebellion’, from the late 18th century through the first half of the 19th century, against the previous The Enlightenment, which focused very heavily on scientific and rational thought. Romanticism was characterized by an emphasis on emotion, passion and the natural world.

Born in March 1806, in County Durham, England, Elizabeth was the daughter of Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke – the eldest of their twelve children.  The very wealthy Barrett family was part Creole and had lived for centuries in Jamaica, owning several sugar plantations and relying on slave labor to work them.  However, Edward chose to live in England while his fortune continued to grow. Educated at home, Elizabeth became a great reader and writer at an early age – reading Shakespeare by the age of ten; and writing her first poem, On the Cruelty of Forcement of Man, by the time she was six or eight (The manuscript is currently in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library; the exact date is controversial because the ‘2’, in the date 1812, is written over something else that is scratched out).

New York Public Library

When Elizabeth was fifteen-years-old, she began to battle a lifelong, undiagnosed, lung ailment, which caused her to take morphine until her death. For many years, she lived in the family home and rarely went outside. Rather, she read the likes of William Wordsworth and Alfred Lord Tennyson; she taught herself Hebrew, so that she could read the Old Testament in The Bible; and she wrote.

During her teens and twenties, Elizabeth contributed to many periodicals, and anonymously published her first collection of poems, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, in 1826. Sadly, Elizabeth’s mother passed away two years later, and her father ruled his family like a tyrant. By the early 1830s, slavery was slowly becoming abolished around the world. That, and a lawsuit against a cousin in Jamaica, caused the Barrett family fortune to significantly decline and the need to move homes very often – eventually settling back in London, on Wimpole Street, for several years.

By this time, Elizabeth’s writings were gaining notoriety and critical acclaim. She continued to stay home most of the time and maintained her writing. In 1844, she published a collection, entitled, Poems by E. Barrett Barrett. This volume was enthusiastically reviewed and gained the attention of poet, Robert Browning, whose work Elizabeth had praised in one of her poems; and he wrote her a telegram that said, “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett. I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart—and I love you too.”

Robert Browning

Although Robert was six years younger than Elizabeth, they secretly exchanged 574 letters over the next twenty months. They had met during this time, and in September 1846, they married at St. Marylebone Parish Church – unbeknownst to Elizabeth’s father, who had forbidden any of his children to marry. In fact, Elizabeth continued to live at home for a week before she told her father, Edward, about the marriage.  Edward was furious, and never spoke to his daughter again, as well as disinherited her.

The Brownings left for Italy – eventually settling in Florence – where Elizabeth defiantly wrote anti-slavery poem, The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point. She had also become well enough to bear a son, Robert (nicknamed Pen), in 1849.

Elizabeth with son, Pen

In 1850, Elizabeth published Sonnets from the Portuguese, which was considered to be her best work and included her most famous, Sonnet No. 43 – written while she and Robert were courting:
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 everyday'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.

The Brownings continued to write and became rather famous in Italy. Elizabeth’s health continued to decline, and she died in Florence, Italy in June 1861, being buried in the English Cemetery of Florence.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Tomb in Florence, Italy

Elizabeth’s Creole heritage has been largely ignored, if not – in some cases – disputed. However, even Elizabeth described herself as being ‘dark-skinned’ and having the ‘blood of the slave’. English writer, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, also described her as being ‘very small and brown with big, exotic eyes and an overgenerous mouth’.  There are some who believe that the reason that her father did not want any of his children to marry was so as to ensure that none of them would have dark-skinned offspring.  Elizabeth has also been named among the 100 Greatest Black Britons. Most intriguingly, a critically-acclaimed book, Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, actually provides convincing evidence that, indeed, both Elizabeth and Robert were part-Black descendants of wealthy, Jamaican plantation owners.

Regardless, they found each other; they fell in love; they married; and they most publicly declared their love for each other. What better story than that for Valentine’s Day?

Sources: Wikipedia, Ebony magazine, 100BlackBritons, Victorian Web, The Biography Channel, Google Images

1 comment:

  1. i like your article. thank you for writing it!