Elizabeth Barrett Browning – Poet

 

Born: March 6, 1806
Durham, England
Died: June 29, 1861
Florence, Italy

“I am writing such poems – allegorical – philosophical – poetical – ethical – synthetically arranged! I am in a fit of writing – could write all day & night – and long to live by myself for three months in a forest of chestnuts & cedars, in an hourly succession of poetical paragraphs & morphine draughts.” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to her brother, 1843.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning – on Drugs…

(Full text of this section to be found at this site – SeattlePI)

“Opium – opium – night after night!” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Of delicate constitution to begin with, Elizabeth Barrett Browning began using opium when she was fifteen to treat the pain from a spinal injury complicated by “nervous hysteria.”

According to Althea Hayter, EBB’s poem, A True Dream (1833), “it is almost a case-book list of opium-inspired imagery, with its slimy, glittering snakes, its stoney face, its poisonous kisses, its rainbow smoke, its breaths of icy cold.”

EBB’s second major illness occurred in 1837, enduring for ten years. It affected her heart and lungs, and required more of the era’s standard medication for everything; By the time she began corresponding with Robert Browning in 1845, she was using forty drops of laudanum a day, a massive, advanced dosage for an addict.

Browning was not happy about her opium habit. She defended her use of it to him in a letter.

“My opium comes in to keep the pulse from fluttering and fainting…to give the right composure and point of balance to the nervous system. I don’t take it for ‘my spirits’ in the usual sense; you must not think such a thing.”

Browning’s concern, apparently, deepened; she wrote to him a few months later with great intensity.

And that you should care so much about the opium! Then I must care, and get to do with less – at least. On the other side of your goodness and indulgence (a very little way on the other side) it might strike you as strange that I who have had no pain – no acute suffering to keep down from its angles – should need opium in any shape. But I have had restlessness till it made me almost mad: at one time I lost the power f sleeping quite – and even in the day, the continual aching sense of weakness has been intolerable – besides palpitation – as if one’s life, instead of giving movement to the body, were imprisoned undiminished within it, and beating and fluttering impotently to get out, at all the doors and windows. So the medical people gave me opium – a preparation of it, called morphine, and ether – and ever since I have been calling it my amreeta draught, my elixer – because the tranquilizing power has been wonderful. Such a nervous system I have – so irritable naturally, and so shattered by various causes, that the need has continued in a degree until now, and it would be dangerous to leave off the calming remedy, Mr. Jago says, except very slowly and gradually. But slowly and gradually something may be done – and you are to understand that I never increased upon the prescribed quantity…prescribed in the first instance – no!”

She protests too much; “I don’t take it for ‘my spirits’ in the usual sense; you must not think such a thing.” No, she doesn’t take it to get high, merely to forestall withdrawal symptoms. Unlikely. She lies about her increasing tolerance and necessary dose: Forty drops of laudanum a day is enough to kill a horse; a doctor would never, under any circumstances, prescribe such a huge quantity of the drug to someone just beginning its use.

This is someone who clearly loves her drug.

EBB’s opium addiction was not well known to her contemporaries. Or , as Palmer and Horowitz suggest, it “was not considered remarkable enough to warrant their attention.” It did attract the attention of Julia Ward Howe, who, in 1857, asserted that Mrs. Browning’s poetic imagination was dependent upon opium.

EBB’s Youth

(This section of text can be found at Notable biographies – here) Though she never received any formal education, Elizabeth loved to read. By age eight she had learned to read Homer in the original Greek and had begun to write poetry. In 1819 her father had printed fifty copies of her classic “The Battle of Marathon.” In 1826 she published anonymously (without her name), An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, an attempt, as she later noted, to survey history, science, metaphysics (the fundamental nature of reality and being), and poetry from classical Greece to the Victorian day in eighty-eight pages. Elizabeth’s fascination with metaphysics and religion became somewhat of an obsession that she described as, “not the deep persuasion of the mild Christian but the wild visions of an enthusiast.”

Elizabeth’s youthful happiness was not to last. In 1821 she began to suffer from a nervous disorder that caused headaches, weakness, and fainting spells. Some sources trace this lifelong illness to an impatient decision to harness her own horse at age fifteen. Reportedly she fell with the saddle on top of her, damaging her spine. An ongoing prescription for opium (an addictive drug used to relieve pain) was probably a life shortening remedy but a common one for the times. Her mother’s health was also unstable. When Elizabeth was twenty her mother became fatally ill. Meanwhile, her father had lost all of his wealth. Rather than move immediately, he refinanced beyond any possibility of repayment so that Mrs. Barrett would never have to leave her beautiful home. After her death, Elizabeth and her family left Hope End forever.

Publications

Barrett continued her poetic career in 1833 with the anonymous publication of Prometheus Bound: Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus, and Miscellaneous Poems. Two years later the Barretts moved to London, England, and in 1838 settled permanently at 50 Wimpole Street. Here Elizabeth started literary friendships that encouraged her writing. During the same year Elizabeth published her first book under her own name, The Seraphim and Other Poems. Though these poems are often filled with heavy-handed sorrow and moral messages, the critics hailed her as a new poet of “extraordinary ability.”

In 1838 Barrett’s illness worsened and she relocated to a sea resort for her health. Her favorite brother Edward stayed with her. Two years later Edward drowned after a disagreement with Elizabeth. This shock worsened her poor health. For the next five years she remained in her room and saw no one except her family and a few close friends. In 1844, however, the publication of Poems secured her fame. Such poems as “The Dead Pan” and “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” seem shrill and sentimental to today’s readers, but they were very popular with Victorian readers and won high praise from critics both in England and the United States.

Romance and renewed health

By far the most significant result of Poems was the beginning of Barrett’s relationship with the poet Robert Browning (1812–1889). Attracted by her praise of his poetry, Browning wrote to her on January 10, 1845, and thus began England’s most famous literary love affair. Barrett’s illness had led her to feel “completely dead to hope of any kind.” Six years his senior and an invalid, Elizabeth could not believe her good fortune. Her progress out of despair into hope and finally joy can be traced in her letters to Browning and in her Sonnets from the Portuguese, written during their courtship and expressing her love for him. The world-famous romance line, “How do I love thee, let me count the ways” comes straight from these sonnets. Because Elizabeth’s father had forbidden any of his children to marry, the couple was secretly married on September 12, 1846. In anger and frustration, Mr. Barrett refused ever to see his daughter again. Fortunately Elizabeth had inherited other money.

The Brownings journeyed south through France to Italy. Casa Guidi in Florence was their home for the rest of Mrs. Browning’s life. There her health was so improved that on March 9, 1849, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning. In 1850 Browning issued a revised edition of Poems containing the Sonnets from the Portuguese, which her husband had urged her to publish. Modern readers usually find these sonnets her best work. But Victorian readers much preferred her Aurora Leigh, a long poem in blank verse (unrhymed verse) published in 1856.

Social Justice

The major interest of Browning’s later years was the Italian struggle for unity and independence. (Until 1859 Italy was a part of Austria). Her keen commitment to social justice is evident in both Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860). In these she attempted to win sympathy for the Italian cause.

This emphasis on social justice led to her poem, A Curse For A Nation, to be published in a Bostonian abolitionist (antislavery) journal. Elizabeth’s 1857 publication of Aurora Leigh featured an artist heroine committed to social reform but thwarted by the male domination of the age. Some call it autobiographical. Years later Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) called this heroine, “the true daughter of her age.” Woolf’s praise attracted many modern readers to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work. Elizabeth was a primary inspiration for Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) as well. No nineteenth century female poet was more esteemed than Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

On June 29, 1861, she died quietly in her husband’s arms with a “smile on her face.” Well, so they say….

Here’s one of her more popular sonnets called ‘ Sonnets from the Portuguese’ , written during her love affair with Robert Browning.

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 out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of everyday’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 a passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love 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 but love thee better after death.

EBB

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