Elizabeth Barrett was born near Durham on 6 March 1806, the eldest of twelve children. Three years later, the family moved to Hope End, near Ledbury in Herefordshire where they were to live for the next 23 years. The picturesque setting in a secluded valley near the Malvern Hills is reflected in Elizabeth's poetry throughout her life. In The lost bower, published in 1844, she recalls
Green the land is where my daily steps
In jocund childhood played,
Dimpled close with hill and valley,
Dappled very close with shade
The original house at Hope End was soon demolished and replaced by an oriental structure, complete with turrets. The gardens were landscaped and the sumptuous effect became famous as a local tourist attraction.
Elizabeth was a studious child, learning both Greek and Latin, and wrote verses from an early age, encouraged by her father. An epic poem entitled The Battle of Marathon in the style of Pope was privately printed (50 copies) by her very proud father for her fourteenth birthday.
From then on, she began to contribute to literary magazines and this became the centre of her relatively isolated life at Hope End. Her poor health gave her ample opportunity to devote all her time to reading and writing. Her first published volume An essay on mind with other poems appeared in 1826. She became friendly with a classicist, Hugh Stuart Boyd, who had settled with his wife in a hillside cottage called The Ruby at Malvern Wells and from 1828 at Woodland Lodge, Malvern Link. Elizabeth became a frequent visitor and corresponded regularly. This significant friendship lasted the rest of her life and is inevitably recalled in her poetry, particularly Wine of Cyprus (1844).
The death of her mother in 1828 was followed by a decline in family fortunes, caused by a downturn in profits from the Jamaican sugar plantations upon which her father had built his wealth. Not able to afford to live at Hope End, the family moved first to Sidmouth in 1832 then, after three years to London. Although here were both literary and social opportunities, the city proved detrimental to Elizabeth's delicate health and she spent three unhappy years in Devon. Back in London she became prolific in verse and prose and drew the attention of fellow poet Robert Browning, eventually leading to a secret marriage in 1846 and the couple's departure for Italy. Poetry continued to flow from her pen, leading to the publication of perhaps her most enduring work, Aurora Leigh, in 1856. She died and was buried in Florence.
A collection of poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning may be found on the Poets Corner website. Among the poems included is Sonnet XLIII, (which begins "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways..."), A musical instrument and Grief. The complete forty-four poems contained within Sonnets From the Portuguese is also available, transcribed from the 1850 edition by Bob Blair.
Other selections can be found in Representative poetry online, part of the University of Toronto site and at Project Gutenburg.
The Barretts at Hope End; The early diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, has been edited with an introduction by Elizabeth Berridge. Published in 1974, this gives an account of the last twelve months that Elizabeth Barrett Browning spent at Hope End from her secret diary, discovered in 1961.
A section devoted to Elizabeth Barrett Browning can be found on The Victorian Web, edited by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University.
The Literary Encyclopedia has a profile of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Mary Pollock, Stetson University.
Page created 2 September 2001 and last updated 6 April 2005
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