Biographical Notes: Eldest child of twelve, raised by a wealthy, tyrannical father, educated in languages and classical literature, Elizabeth Barrett Browning first published at the age of fourteen and continued publishing poetry anonymously on into her twenties. The 1838 Seraphim, and Other Poems gained her widespread critical and popular attention, and her 1844 volume, Poems, was so successful that she was nominated to succeed Wordsworth as England's Poet Laureate in 1850 (Tennyson was chosen). While Elizabeth was an invalid in 1845, poet Robert Browning began an extensive exchange of letters with her, expressing great admiration of her poetry. After some time, she permitted him to visit, and the two fell in love. As her father forbid marriage to all his children (!), Robert and Elizabeth married in secret and fled a week later to Italy. The Brownings traveled Europe extensively, returning to London for long visits, and their large circle of literary friends included John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Lord Tennyson, William Thackeray, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others. The Brownings were very happily married until her death in Italy in 1861.
Fall and rise
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the leading woman poet of the 19th century, though her stature declined over the course of the early-to-mid-20th century. Her poetry came to be condemned for an "excessive intensity of feeling," which one eminent critic claims is "rarely controlled by the discipline of form. She depended upon large and loose effects, and rarely sought or found the perfect cadence or the inevitable word." Recently, though, her work has been reevaluated more positively for its metrical experimentation and its progressive social ideasAurora Leigh in particular, for its depiction of the plight of the female artist in Victorian England.
Sonnets from the Portuguese is generally considered her finest work, and the collection have never fallen in critical estimation. These forty-four sonnets are an organic cycle of poems that describe the growth and development of her love for her husbandthe most famous of these sonnets is "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways" (p. 591).
In addition to the feminist protest in Aurora Leigh, much of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry was overtly political. She spoke passionately against the exploitation of child labor, for the cause of Italian freedom from Austrian domination, and in vehement favor of liberal political reform in England.