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Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most prominent poets of her day. She remains arguably one of the most-loved poets of all time.
Born in 1806, the eldest of twelve children, Elizabeth wrote poetry from early childhood, somewhere between the ages of four and six. Though she enjoyed activities like family walks and picnics, home theatrical productions, and riding her pony, her favorite pastime was reading.
Educated at home, she was reportedly reading novels by the time she was six and studying Greek at young age as well.
In her mid-teens, Elizabeth suffered from both a lung illness and a spinal injury. Struggling with intense pain and loss of mobility, she was prescribed opiates for pain management. She was dependent on them for much of her adult life. It’s possible that the extended use of these drugs may have been a contributing factor to her frail health.
It has been suggested by at least one of her biographers that the medicines she used could have contributed to the vastness of her imagination and thereby her poetry. However, in that she was writing poetry well before she began taking those drugs, her gift for words had already been established.
Given her health challenges, Elizabeth assumed she had no hope of finding romantic love but to her great surprise and the world of poetry’s benefit, fellow poet Robert Browning was touched by her work and they began to correspond. The couple exchanged nearly 600 letters in less than two years. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” was a personal declaration of love for Robert before becoming a world famous poem.
Their secret courtship culminated in elopement. Elizabeth’s father wouldn’t approve and he did disinherit her when he found out she’d married. Father and daughter never spoke again.
Her unexpected love not only inspired her poetry, but her health as well. Elizabeth grew stronger and at 43 she gave birth to the couple’s only child, a son whom they called Pen.
There is little information regarding the Brownings’ home life. One can only assume to have the love of a husband and son she never thought she’d have, Elizabeth must have been quite happy. Surely with two sentimental poets as husband and wife, romance would have flowed freely. Having come from a large family and not having a child until later in her life, it would be expected that she was an especially protective and loving mother.
After practically a lifetime of frail health, Elizabeth died young in 1861. She passed in the arms of her beloved husband. He said that she died “smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl’s…Her last word was…’Beautiful.’”