Perhaps it is the long curls falling over her cheeks that makes Elizabeth Barrett Browning look like a stereotypical wan, Victorian poet. Although her love sonnets, especially “How do I love thee…” still live on in many readers’ imaginations and are sometimes quoted in wedding toasts, they have become too saccharine for many of us. Poets’ reputations veer up and down almost as quickly as those of basketball coaches or rap artists.
When she died in 1861, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was so popular and admired that when William Wordsworth died, she had been considered as a logical successor as England’s poet laureate. Her book-length poem Aurora Leigh went through twenty editions between its publication in 1857 and 1900. With the new century the wind shifted and there were no more editions of the poem until 1978. Virginia Woolf, who never forgot Barrett Browning, wrote in 1932 that “Nobody reads her, nobody discusses her, nobody troubles to put her in her place.”
Now we are in another century and Elizabeth Barrett Browning is being looked at in a new light—not as a poet of love and harmony, but as a disruptive radical. She spoke out on many social issues including child labor.
The Cry of the Children
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years ?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, —
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows ;
The young birds are chirping in the nest ;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows ;
The young flowers are blowing toward the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly !
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free.
Slavery was another favorite subject of Barrett Browning and her feelings about this were no doubt influenced by her family’s history as slave-owners in Jamaica. Elizabeth was aware, as was the rest of the family, that they had cousins and other relatives who were of mixed African and English blood. Some of the mixed-race children born to slaves on the Jamaican plantation that was home to Elizabeth’s grandfather, were acknowledged, others were not. Elizabeth and her siblings, who were dark skinned, probably had some African blood. Some critics speculate that a desire not to have more mixed-race grandchildren was the reason for Elizabeth’s father’s refusal to let his children marry. Although it’s hard to figure out why a man who did not want grandchildren would produce twelve children of his own.
The fluttering Victorian poet that many of us picture when we see some versions of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is not the real EBB. She was a woman immersed in the social issues and politics of her own age. After she married Robert
Browning and moved to Italy, she became a staunch defendant of the Italian war for independence from Austria, just as her friend Margaret Fuller was. When she wrote her longest poem Aurora Leigh, she wrote about a woman’s struggle to maintain her independence from the man she loved and the marriage he proposed:
If I married him
I should not dare to call my soul my own
Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought
And every heart-beat down there in the bill.
Her concerns were the same ones that women struggle with today. It’s time to free her from the tyranny of being seen just as a poet of love. A good place to start is with the book Dared and Done: the Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning by Julia Markus. It’s not a complete biography of her life, but a very readable account of her surprisingly happy marriage with another great poet. Together they faced many of the same issues that dual-career families face in the 21st century. It gives us a new picture of what those Victorians were really like.