Written by Paige Uhl
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably known more for her poetry than she is for the successes and passions that peppered her career, but they were many. Elizabeth was born in England in the year 1806 and grew up the daughter of a wealthy landowner. She was thirsty for knowledge from a young age, immersing herself in popular Greek literature and the works of Shakespeare very early in her life. She read the entire histories of England, Greece, and Rome. She even learned Hebrew so she could read the Old Testament from beginning to end in the language it was written in. She had written her earliest poems by the time she was twelve years old. She taught herself all that she knew, fueling her deep desire to learn more and more with age.
Elizabeth was not just an avid student and aspiring scholar; she was a passionate believer who took her faith very seriously. She described this faith as, “not the deep persuasion of the mild Christian but the wild visions of an enthusiast.” It was her faith that propelled her deeper into social justice issues throughout her life. She opposed slavery in many of her written works, a direct response to her father who used slaves to work his plantations. She also addressed child labor that was employed in the mines and mills in England and fought for the rights of women in a time when they were often withheld.
Probably the most beautiful story surrounding the life of Elizabeth Barret was how her poetry piqued the interest of a younger poet, who fell in love with her writing before he ever came to love her. Robert Browning wrote to Elizabeth to communicate his admiration for her work, and upon finally meeting her in May 1845, pursued her for courtship. Elizabeth was surprised by Browning’s affection, for she had been suffering for months after losing her brother and suffering from an illness she had developed at a young age and was totally confined to a bedroom. She often doubted that Browning could really love her as he professed to, and her wrestlings with this love are communicated in her Sonnets from the Portuguese. And yet, nothing about her condition scared Browning. They were married in 1846, when Robert whisked her away to Italy to build their new life together. Elizabeth continued honing her skills and developing her poetry in Italy. I often wonder if being married to Robert brought new-found life and health to her body. They established a comfortable life for themselves, and she gave birth to a son in the year 1849.
Though Robert Browning did all he could to lengthen Elizabeth’s life, she did eventually die of the illness that had always haunted her in June of 1861. She did not die hopelessly, however, and her love for her husband is immortalized in one of her most popular poems, titled How Do I Love Thee?
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 candle-light.
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. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Elizabeth’s faith carried her through her life and into her untimely death. She knew how loved she was.
I love how Robert demonstrated to Elizabeth the kind of love that we find in our Redeemer. When she was at her most broken and fragile place, Robert’s love found her. When we feel unlovable, useless, when we doubt that anyone could ever love us, God’s love comes to us in the form of good news. We bring nothing to Him, can do nothing for Him…and yet, He sent His Son to die for us and to save us, so that when God looks upon us, He no longer sees an invalid too weak and frail to merit any love. No, God sees us as those He has purchased and redeemed and set His love and favor upon.
I’m thankful for poets like Elizabeth Barret Browning who sought to learn all she could so that she could fight for the rights of others and use the gifts God had given her to speak for those who couldn’t speak for themselves. Let us be those who remember who we are in Christ, and who view our faith, “not [as] the deep persuasion of the mild Christian but the wild visions of an enthusiast.”
“About Elizabeth Barrett Browning | Academy of American Poets.” Poets.org, https://poets.org/poet/elizabeth-barrett-browning. Accessed 10 February 2022.
“How DO I Love Thee?” Poets.org, https://poets.org/poem/how-do-i-love-thee-sonnet-43. Accessed 10 February 2022.
“The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – Poems.” The Victorian Web, 6 April 2002, https://victorianweb.org/authors/ebb/ebbio.html. Accessed 10 February 2022