Friday Poem: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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Born in 1806 as Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett, she began writing from the age of six, and many of her childhood poems exist to this day, forming an extraordinary body of juvenilia and an insight into her mind from a very young age. Writing poetry is in itself an unusual step for a woman at the time to take: whilst novel-writing and reading was seen as very much a ‘female’ occupation, poetry was predominantly considered to be a man’s world. Men, it was felt, had the brain capacity for the more complex poetical form. Virginia Woolf later wryly commented in A Room of One’s Own, that fewer women could concentrate to write poetry as they had so many more domestic demands upon their life!
But somehow, Elizabeth managed and became successful. Supported by her parents, her juvenilia was collected together and published, whilst she went on to write socially-aware poems such as ‘The Cry of the Children’ in 1842, which condemned child-labour and helped to change the laws in Britain at the time. She agreed with the ideas in Mary Wollstonecraft’s seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Women and was one of the earliest feminist writers. Such was the quality and quantity of her output that she was mooted as a rival for Poet Laureate in 1850, pitting her up against Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
All of this was despite her severe illness from a young age. At fifteen, she began to suffer from headaches and spinal pain, which sometimes left her paralysed. It’s unclear to this day quite what this mysterious illness was, but Elizabeth was often in severe pain, which she medicated using laudanum, a form of opiate. She would become reliant on this, which in itself had a detrimental impact upon her health in later life. Between this, and the tuberculosis which affected her in thirties, Elizabeth had significant health issues throughout her life.
Even today, overcoming obstacles like this to become a well-respected and acclaimed poet would be difficult. And even now, balancing a successful career and a family life can seem fraught with difficulty. But, yet again, Elizabeth managed it.
Her poetry attracted the attentions of one Robert Browning, a poet in his own right. When the two were introduced by a mutual friend, one of the most famous courtships in history began. Knowing her father would disapprove, Elizabeth wrote to Robert and met him in secret. Finally, the two married in 1845 and moved to Italy; as predicted, Elizabeth’s father disowned her, yet the couple’s literary success meant that they were largely independent. Elizabeth even recovered her health enough to have a baby boy in 1849, when she was 43. In a society where women were often considered ‘on the shelf’ and ‘old maids’ in their twenties, Elizabeth once again challenged expectations. Her love for Browning inspired some of her most famous works, such as Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh.
Ill health was to dog her for much of her married life, however. In 1861, Elizabeth died in her husband’s arms as a result of the illness she had suffered since she was a teenager. She is buried in the English Cemetery in Florence.
Sonnet 29 – ‘I think of thee!’
Whilst Barrett Browning’s best known sonnet is Sonnet 43 – ‘How do I love thee?’, this poem makes an earlier appearance in her sonnet cycle Sonnets from the Portuguese. A collection of 44 poems dedicated to her lover and husband Robert, they’re an extraordinary outpouring of love and desire, with this one being no exception.
As befits one of the most incredible Victorian women writers, who pushed the boundaries in her own life, this sonnet is shot through with the imagery of sexual desire, rising to a very deliberate climax towards the end of the poem. Barrett Browning even overturns the traditional structure of an Italian sonnet: usually, a change of topic occurs between the eighth and ninth lines, but here, she is so excited at the thought of her lover, that it cannot wait and she moves on in the seventh line.
If you’ve ever thought that Victorian poetry is stuffy, stilted and prudish, make sure you read this Friday’s poem!
I think of thee!—my thoughts do twine and bud
About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,
Put out broad leaves, and soon there 's nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood
I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly
Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,
Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee
Drop heavily down,—burst, shattered, everywhere!
Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
I do not think of thee—I am too near thee.