On January 10, 1845, poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning begin corresponding.
Two poets that most of us become familiar with in high school are Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) and Robert Browning. It’s hard to imagine them as deeply in love as they were, if one only gets to know them through their much-anthologized poems. Take, for instance, Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” in which the speaker is casually monologuing about disposing of a wife who had, in his estimation, cheapened his “nine-hundred-years-old name” by showing appreciation to other people’s kindnesses. This poem sent a thrill of delicious dread through my 15-year-old self; the speaker is so matter-of-fact, so pompous, so self-absorbed. It is great fun to read aloud, in a wildly dramatic fashion.
But then we meet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a woman of fierce intellect and determination, regardless of her pervasive illness and her overbearing father who disinherited her upon her marriage to Robert Browning. She was a prolific writer, beginning at the tender age of 6 or 8, whose output was a match for Tennyson’s and she was wildly popular in both Britain and the United States. Elizabeth was also a champion for the abolitionist movement and other social justice causes of her day. Perhaps, though, she is better known for her collection of poems titled Sonnets from the Portuguese, a series of forty-four love poems to Robert. It is interesting to note that she, at first, did not want to publish them, as she felt they were too personal, but Robert insisted, claiming that they were the best series of sonnets since Shakespeare. (I suspect he may have been a little biased, but they are wonderful, nonetheless!)
Sonnet 43, “How do I love thee?” is probably the best known of the series, and is often quoted. In the sonnet, she elevates her love to something more, something noble and just that will be an exemplar for how to live one’s life with dignity and deep faith:
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the 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…
What a difference in poets and diction, subject matter and choice of form! But yet, they loved each other and their craft so well, so deeply, that their legacy lives on.
We should all be so lucky or blessed.