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Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806 – June 29, 1861) is one of the most respected poets of the Victorian era. He wrote prolifically on all poetry but also prose and translations. He campaigned for the abolition of slavery and his work helped to influence the reform of child labor legislation. His literary production had a great influence on prominent writers of the time, including Edgar Allan Poe and the poet Emily Dickinson.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, originally called Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett, was born in Cochoe Hall, near Durham, England in 1806. She was the daughter of a plantation owner Edward Moulton-Barrett, who adopted the surname “Barrett” by inheriting the farms of his grandfather in Jamaica. She was baptized in the church of Kelloe, where a plaque describes her as a “great poet, noble woman, devoted wife”. His mother was named Mary Graham-Clarke and came from a wealthy family from Newcastle upon Tyne, a descendant of King Edward III of England.
Barrett was educated at home and tutored by Daniel McSwiney with her older brother, a precocious and studious girl who began writing verses at the age of four, read novels with six, with eight delighted with the Homer translations and at ten he studied Greek, in such a way that at twelve he had already written his own Homeric epic, The Battle of Marathon: A Poem.
In 1820, Barrett wrote The Battle of Marathon, an epic-style poem whose copies remained within the family.His mother compiled the poetry of the still-girl in the collection of “Poems by Elizabeth B. Barrett” that her Father called “Poet Laureate of Hope End” in reference to the mansion where they lived. The result is one of the largest collections of youth written in English.
At this time, Elizabeth began to fight against a disease, that the medical science of the time could not diagnose. The three sisters fell with the same syndrome but only persisted in Elizabeth. He had severe pain in his head and spine with loss of mobility. Sent to recover from Gloucester, she was treated, in the absence of symptoms to support another diagnosis, for a spinal problem. Although this ailment continued for the rest of his life, it is believed that it is not related to the lung condition he developed later, in 1837.
To alleviate the pain derived from his health problems, Barrett began taking opiates, laudanum, followed by morphine, then commonly prescribed, becoming dependent on them for much of his adult life. Likewise, the use from an early age of this derivative of opium may well have contributed to its fragile health. Some biographers like Alethea Hayter have suggested that this may also have fostered the liveliness of their imagination and have an impact on the poetry that it produced.
In 1821, at the age of 15, Elizabeth Barrett reads Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792), becoming a passionate advocate of the ideas of this thinker and writer of feminist thought.
In 1828 his mother dies. As of this moment, it is her aunt Mary Sarah Graham-Clarke who is mainly responsible for caring for her sister’s children. After the demands and the abolition of slavery, Elizabeth’s father suffers great financial and investment losses that force him to sell Hope End. Although the Barrett never became poor, the place was confiscated and put up for sale to satisfy the creditors, representing a blow to the family’s economy.
Between 1833 and 1835, the family moved to Belle Vue in Sidmouth, renamed now Cedar Shade, where a blue plaque at the entrance testifies to Barrett’s passage through the town. In 1838, a few years after the sale of Hope End, the Barretts settle down at 50 Wimpole Street.
During 1837-38 the poet suffered a new disease, with symptoms that today suggest a tuberculous ulceration of the lungs. That same year, as a result of his doctor’s insistence, the Barretts moved again, in this case to London to Torquay, on the Devonshire coast. Later two tragedies hit the family. In February 1840, his brother Samuel died of fever in Jamaica and shortly after, in July, his favorite brother Edward (“Bro”) drowned in a sailing accident in Torquay. This had a serious effect on her health, which was already fragile and the family returns to Wimpole Street in 1841. Here Elisabeth Barrett Browning spends most of her time in her upstairs room, seeing few people outside her immediate surroundings . During this isolation his dog of water Flush becomes an important company. The own Elizabeth Barrett, with the perspective of the years, descibe how she felt and how she affected this situation of solitude and disconnection with the world, which she perceived as a clear disadvantage to develop her passion for writing, which for her represented a valve of escapeː
I have lived only inwardly or sadly, because of a strong emotion. Before this imprisonment of my illness, I was also confined and there will be few in the world among the younger women who have not seen more, heard more, known more about society, than I, who can hardly be considered young anymore.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The period from 1841 to 1844 are prolific years in poetry, translation and prose. The poem “The Cry of the Children”, published in Blackwoods in 1842, condemning child labor, helped carry out legal reforms by supporting the ten-hour Law of Lord Shaftesbury (1844).
In 1844 he published two volumes of Poems, which included “A Drama of Exile”, “A Vision of Poets”, and “Courtship of Lady Geraldine” and two important critical essays for The Athenaeum. The liberation of the domestic tasks that his illness caused him, allowed him, unlike what happened with his sisters and what was expected of any young person of the time, to focus and develop his intellectual and creative facet, cultivating an enormous correspondence and reading widely.
The Poems published in 1844 brought him great success, attracting the admiration of the writer Robert Browning, with whom he initiates a secret correspondence, which culminates in a secret marriage as well, for fear of his father’s disapproval which, in effect, produced, being shortly after the link disinherited by this. The couple settled in Florence, where Elizabeth’s health improves. Here he writes The Windows of the Guidi House (Casa Guidi Windows, 1851), considered by many to be his most powerful work, inspired by the Tuscan struggle for freedom. The couple installed their residence in Piazza San Felice, in the apartment that today is the Casa Guidi museum, dedicated to his memory. During her stay in this city Elizabeth Barrett becomes a close friend of the British poets Isabella Blagden and Theodosia Trollope Garrow. In 1848, his only son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett, was born.
His best known work in Spain is The Sonnets from the Portuguese, usually translated as Sonnets of Portuguese, although they have also appeared published as Sonnets of Portuguese, The sonnets of Portuguese, Portuguese sonnets, The sonnets of the Portuguese lady or Sonnets of the Portuguese With a love theme, he tells his own love story, disguising it sparingly with the title. She begins to write them in 1845, and it is not until 1848 that she gives them to her husband to read, finally she publishes them in 1850, in an enlarged edition of the Poems.
In 1856, Aurora Leigh is published, which Barrett considers her most mature work, “the one in which my highest convictions about life and art appear.” It is a book conceived for many years, which already had in mind when he meets her husband, with whom he shares his idea and longings about the sameː
My main intention at this moment is to write a kind of novel-poem … going into the center of our conventions, and bursting into the living rooms and similar places, “where the angels are afraid to tread”; and thus approaching, face to face and without mask, the humanity of the time, clearly telling the truth about it. That is my intention.
Aurora Leigh was also one of the most appreciated by the public of the time, as it shows that in the year 1873, seventeen since its publication, thirteen editions of this book were made.
In 1860 a complete edition of his poems comes to light with the title of Poems before the Congress (Poems before Congress). Shortly after his health worsened and Elizabeth Barrett Browning on June 29, 1861. His grave is located in the Protestant cemetery of Florence. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband shortly after his death.
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