Two Poets in Love: The Romance of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most popular poets in England and the United States in the Victorian era. She was born into a family of wealth and status, which when coupled with severe lung issues that developed after an acute illness at the age of 15, led to a recluse lifestyle. She published her first volume of poetry, The Seraphim and Other Poems, in 1838 when she was around 32 years-old. Between 1841 and 1844, Elizabeth wrote prolifically. Many of her poems from this time period condemn child labor and slavery. She met many famous poets of the day, including William Wordsworth, and rivaled Lord Alfred Tennyson with the volume of her work.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Her life would collide with Robert Browning in 1844 when he wrote to her to marvel at her poetry. Before meeting Elizabeth, Robert was a struggling poet. He had some success with poems like Pauline and Paracelsus, both published in the mid-1830s, but his career floundered with the publication of Sordello in 1840. Readers found the poetry to be obscure. Robert also tried his hand at writing plays, finding he had a penchant for the dramatic monologue. 

After striking up a correspondence, Robert arranged to meet with Elizabeth on May 20, 1845 through her distant cousin, John Kenyon. Elizabeth was hesitant at first but conceded, and shortly after the meeting, a courtship started. 

Robert influenced much of Elizabeth’s work after this initial meeting. The two lovebirds corresponded regularly, and at the risk of offending her father, married in secret. In order to manage the elopement, Elizabeth snuck out of her family’s home on September 12, 1846 to marry Robert at St. Marylebone Parish Church. 

Portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Elizabeth’s father had been against the marriage, seeing Robert as a fortune hunter. This led to Elizabeth’s decision to flee to Italy with Robert a week after their wedding. Elizabeth never saw her father again, and he disinherited her for what he viewed as a rash marriage. 

Nonetheless, Robert and Elizabeth had a marriage filled with love. They lived in Italy for the next fifteen years, which saw a dramatic shift in Elizabeth’s health—and for the better. Elizabeth also had money of her own, allowing the couple to live comfortably. 

Robert found Italy to be a university for him. It inspired his learning and his writing. However, his writing continued to be pandered by critics. In 1849, after four miscarriages by Elizabeth, the two had a son named Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning. They affectionately referred to him as Pen. 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning with their son, Pen, in 1860.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Elizabeth’s best work, arguably, was also written during this time. She wrote Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of 44 love sonnets, and Aurora Leigh, born from the inspiration of her for her love for Robert. 

Elizabeth’s reputation as a poet far superseded her husband’s. He was often referred to as “Mrs. Browning’s husband,” but if there was any resentment on his part, it didn’t show. When Elizabeth died in 1861, Robert held her in his arms until the end. Robert later recalled this of Elizabeth’s death: 

“[She died] smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl’s…. Her last word was… ‘Beautiful.’”

Robert returned to London with their son and rejoined society. He continued to write, including a 12 volume poem based on a murder trial that happened in 17th century Rome called The Ring and the Book. This poem was arguably his masterpiece and garnered him commercial and literary success.

Robert Browning in 1888.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

He continued to produce other successful works that gained him accolades and praise. Literary societies, called Browning Societies, were created throughout Britain and the United States and dedicated to studying his work, often a mixture of philosophy and poetry. 

He became romantically involved with Louisa Caroline Stewart-Mackenzie, Lady Ashburton, a philanthropist, but never proposed marriage to her. Robert traveled extensively until he passed away in 1889. He never remarried.  


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Further Readings:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, biography on Poetry Foundation

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, biography on the Victorian Web

Famous Last Words on Poets.org

A Luminous Consciousness by Rosa Inocencio Smith

Poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning elope, article on History.com

The Relationship of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning by Kathleen Blake

Robert Browning, biography on the Poetry Foundation

Robert Browning, biography on the Victorian Web

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