About Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett was born in 1806, the eldest of twelve children of Edward Barrett, whose fortune was derived from Jamaican plantations. She was largely self-educated at home: something of a prodigy, she read novels aged six and Pope's translations of Homer aged eight, studied Greek and wrote her own Homeric epic aged ten. In 1832 financial losses in Jamaica, caused largely by the abolition of slavery, forced Edward Barrett to sell the family home and move first to Sidmouth and then London. In 1837 Elizabeth Barrett's health broke down and she was sent to the milder climate of Torquay, where her eldest brother was drowned in a sailing accident, to her lasting grief.
She returned to London in 1841 still an invalid, working full time as a writer of book reviews, articles, translations and poetry, culminating in the publication of Poems in Two Volumes. One poem in this collection referred favourably to the work of Robert Browning; he wrote to thank her and started the remarkable series of letters between them, leading to their meeting and engagement. Their marriage in 1846 was necessarily secret because her tyrannical father forbade any of his children to marry; Robert and Elizabeth eloped to Italy where they lived for most of the rest of her life.
'How I do Love Thee' is the forty-third in a series of forty-four sonnets which trace the evolution in love of the thirty-nine-year-old invalid for a brilliant poet six years younger. It is entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese, partly as a pretence that the poems were translations, but also because Portuguese was Robert Browning's secret name for Elizabeth. The strength of the series is in the story itself; the quality of individual sonnets is uneven. 'How I do Love Thee', however, is justly famous as a delightful celebration of the promised eternity of enduring love.
Aurora Leigh is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's masterpiece. Longer than Paradise Lost, it was published in nine books in 1857. It tells the story of a woman poet, a philanthropist who loves her, and a series of catastrophes which keep them apart until the happy ending. In the process of telling this story – unremarkable in itself – Barrett Browning reflects on her narrative with intense feeling, commenting on contemporary society, on the suffering of the poor and on the poet's mission – and much else – in vigorous and agile blank verse.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in her husband's arms in 1861. Last Poems was published posthumously and included 'A Musical Instrument'. It is deceptively simple: the great God Pan, ‘Spreading Ruin and scattering ban’ is a destructive as well as a creative force: he makes music by doing damage. It is as though this nineteenth-century female writer and daughter of a repressive father was leaving her testimony to the fight she had fought to make her music.
Additional material and useful links
The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (vol 1...
Sonnets from the Portuguese: A Celebration of Love (St...
Aurora Leigh (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
As a secondary schoolteacher in London for the past thirty years, it has been my privilege to have had a job which...