Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) was a prominent English Victorian poet. She had been a prodigy who, while still young, became enthusiastic for the study of classic literature and devoted to Christian faith. At about age 20, she began battling long-term illness which troubled her for the rest of her life.
Even though her domineering father’s income came partly from slave labour on Jamaican plantations, she was opposed to slavery — and wrote poems against it. When abolition came, in the 1830s, it undermined the family’s wealth. She also wrote The Cry of the Children (1842) which condemned child labour, and helped promote reform.
Her popular 1844 book, Poems, prompted Robert Browning to write a letter of admiration. By 1845 he had come to visit her, where she lived as an invalid in her father’s home. This began, perhaps, the most famous literary romance of all time. By 1846 the Brownings secretly married and eloped to Italy, where her health greatly improved; her father never forgave her, even though their marriage was happy.
Her famous sequence — Sonnets from the Portuguese — records the stages of her love for Robert Browning; the most famous of these is the following sonnet:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a 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, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
The Meaning of the Look
I think that look of Christ might seem to say—
`Thou Peter! art thou then a common stone
Which I at last must break my heart upon
For all God`s charge to his high angels may
Guard my foot better? Did I yesterday
Wash thy feet, my beloved, that they should run
Quick to deny me `neath the morning sun?
And do thy kisses, like the rest, betray?
The cock crows coldly.—GO, and manifest
A late contrition, but no bootless fear!
For when thy final need is dreariest,
Thou shalt not be denied, as I am here;
My voice to God and angels shall attest,
Because I KNOW this man, let him be clear.`
Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca