Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Sweet Lady Poet of the Love Sonnet
Elizabeth Browning was the proverbial child prodigy who began writing at the early age of 11, and her lifetime body of work boasted of the largest collections of childhood poetry in existence. Then after being accepted as an adult into some of Britain’s most prestigious literary circles during the Victorian era, she bedazzled both readers and other poets alike with her love sonnets, becoming an influence on such great American poets as Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson. In fact, she was so renown in Great Britain that she was being considered for the office of Poet Laureate by the Royal Family.
Born on March 6, 1806 to a well off Englishman named Edward Moulton Barrett, she was the eldest child of 12 children and spent a happy childhood in a large country home in Durham, England. However, she fell ill at age 15 succumbing to headaches, and after the death of a brother, she became a bit reclusive and shy. But, she was not too shy to be swept off her feet by another poet, Robert Browning, who fell deeply in love with her after reading her beautiful verses about love, but fearing the disapproval of her father, she kept her marriage a secret for a week while still living under his roof as if she were still single. And he did indeed disown her, and her most famous Sonnet “How Do I Love Thee” tells of her legendary love for the man, a poem that is a pure joy to read.
How Do I Love Thee
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 is 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 passion put to use
In my old griefs, and my childhood’s faith.
I loved 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 love thee better after death.
Now this kind of love smacks of intense unconditional, almost everlasting commited love “beyond death,” if possible, howbeit she had to keep it discreet by calling it her “most quiet need,” she had a controlling father after all, and she did live in Victorian times when Christianity ruled and propriety was the order of the day, and girls were mostly educated at home, and when all outward manifestations of outward passion had to be kept under one’s strict control at all times.
Her most famous book was entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese, all love poems and she died on June 29, 1861 in Florence, Italy, but not before this poetess made giant inroads for many English speakin female poets that came after her.