1858 portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Michele Gordigiani.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, née Moulton-Barrett (March 6, 1806 - June 29, 1861) was a popular Victorian English poet. She is best remembered for Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) which includes the famous poem "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."

Elizabeth Barrett began writing at an early age, and remained a prolific author throughout her life in spite of her poor health. She was an invalid approaching forty when she met fellow poet and her future husband Robert Browning. The story of their secret courtship and elopement is one of the most famous romances in literary history.

In addition to the popular love sonnets and a verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Barrett Browning also wrote poems addressing political and social issues. She died in Florence, Italy, at the age of fifty-five.


Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett was born on March 6, 1806 in County Durham, England, to Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke. She was the eldest of twelve children. Her father, a wealthy Jamaican sugar-plantation owner, purchased a large estate in Herefordshire in 1809 where Elizabeth spent a happy childhood.

Elizabeth was educated at home, first by her mother then by her brothers' tutors, as girls at the time were denied formal education. She was highly intelligent and studious, and enjoyed reading poetry and novels in their original languages. In addition to Latin and Greek, she learned French, Italian, and Portuguese, and she also taught herself Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament. She began writing as a young child, and at the age of twelve completed an epic poem in the style of Homer entitled The Battle of Marathon.

Elizabeth became severely ill when she was fifteen. Suffering from head and back pains among other symptoms, she spent a year at a spa being treated for the "spine disease" (no precise diagnosis was given). She would suffer from poor health for the rest of her life. She also developed a dependence on opiates (standard treatment at the time) which is thought to have worsened her condition later on. She still continued to study and write, however, and published her first collection An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems in 1826. After her mother's death in1828 and financial difficulties involving the Jamaican plantations, her father sold the estate and moved the family to Devonshire in 1832. They then moved to London in 1836 where Elizabeth met great literary figures of the day, including William Wordsworth and Mary Russell Mitford.

In London, perhaps due to the polluted air, Elizabeth soon developed a chronic lung disease. At her physician's recommendation, she was sent to Torquay in 1838. While there, she published The Seraphim and Other Poems which received great reviews. In 1840, Elizabeth's favorite brother Edward, who had accompanied her to Torquay, was killed in a sailing accident, and Elizabeth returned to London broken both in health and spirit. She spent the next few years mostly confined to her bedroom, although she remained active in her literary career.

In 1844, a collection of her verse Poems was published. It was widely praised and established her as one of the leading poets of the day. It also inspired a struggling poet named Robert Browning to write to her expressing his admiration. After several months of correspondence, the two finally met in her room in May 1845. Although Elizabeth found it difficult to accept at first, Robert, who was six years her junior, eventually convinced her of his love for her. Their courtship was carried out in secret, because Elizabeth's tyrannical father did not wish any of his children to marry. They exchanged close to six hundred letters before secretly marrying on September 12, 1846. They left for Italy a week later, and Elizabeth was disinherited by her father.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Pen.

The Brownings settled in an apartment in Florence which Elizabeth called Casa Guidi. She developed an interest in Italian politics, and began writing in support of Italian unification and independence. She also addressed social issues in her writing, publishing such works as the anti-slavery poem "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" (1848). In May 1849, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Robert "Pen" Wiedeman Barrett Browning. A few months later, she showed her husband the love sonnets she had written during their courtship. Robert thought so highly of them that he encouraged Elizabeth to publish them. They were included in an expanded collection of her Poems (1850) as Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Between her politically-themed works Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860), which proved unpopular, Elizabeth wrote what she considered her most mature work, Aurora Leigh (1856). It is a verse novel about a female poet who chooses her career over marriage only to be reunited with her suitor years later. It received mixed reviews, but was a great popular success.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Casa Guidi at the age of fifty-five. Robert Browning returned to England with his son and supervised the publication of Elizabeth's Last Poems (1862). He never remarried, and never visited Florence again.

Selected works

  • An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826)
  • The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838)
  • Poems (1844)
  • Poems (1850), new edition including Sonnets from the Portuguese
  • Casa Guidi Windows (1851)
  • Aurora Leigh (1856)
  • Poems before Congress (1860)

External links