The Lady Poet

On March 6, 1806, at Coxhoe Hall in County Durham, England, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated poets, took her first breaths. The eldest child of a wealthy family, she was mostly raised at a 500-acre estate called Hope End in Ledbury, Hertfordshire, which would later inspire her work Aurora Leigh.

Elizabeth was a studious, precocious child who was already studying Greek at ten and writing her own Homeric epic. Her parents encouraged her writing, even collecting her childhood poetry into a book, which they printed 50 copies of. As a teen, Elizabeth read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women and became a supporter of Wollstonecraft’s somewhat radical ideas.

Her first independent publication, Stanzas Excited by Reflections on the Present State of Greece, appeared in The New Monthly Magzazine in May 1821 and was followed by another work two months later. She published her first collection of poems in 1826. Around the time of her first publication, she began suffering from an unidentified, lifelong illness that left her very frail. She began taking opiates for pain and would become dependent on them for much of her adulthood.

In the late 1830s, the Barretts moved to London, where Elizabeth was introduced to literary figures including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Tennyson, and Mary Russell Mitford. She continued to write and publish, despite her poor health, and her 1844 volume Poems inspired Robert Browning to write her a fan letter. A family friend arranged a meeting between Elizabeth and Browning on May 20, 1845, and the two began secretly corresponding and courting. They married quietly in 1846 and went to Italy, hoping the warmer weather would improve Elizabeth’s health. Her father disinherited her for daring to marry, but Elizabeth had money of her own, and the couple lived comfortably in Italy, where Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Robert Barrett Browning.

The Brownings continued to associate with other writers and artists on the Continent, until Elizabeth’s health began to fail again after the death of her father. She still managed to publish a small volume of political poems that caused an outcry back in England in 1859. Shortly after their publication, on June 29, 1861, Elizabeth died in her husband’s arms. Her last word was said to be “beautiful.” She’s buried in the English Cemetery of Florence.



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