February 21, 2018

Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett and After

Popularity came late to Robert Browning, but in his last years he could walk the streets of London and see shop windows full of posters and bookmarks and needlework cases inscribed with some of his cheeriest lines: "God's in his heaven -- All's right with the world!" and "O to be in England/Now that April's there" and "A man's reach should exceed his grasp/Or what's a heaven for?"

Browning gave every indication of enjoying the commerce of fame, and took every opportunity to jeer at those critics and naysayers who, in his view, had forestalled it. Most of his career had been spent in a double shadow -- that of the Poet Laureate, Lord Tennyson, and that of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Worse, many believed that Browning lived not just in his wife's shadow but on her money, and had married her only in order to do so.

The story of their relationship is a dramatic one -- in fact became dramatized in the popular 1930s stage hit, The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Elizabeth Barrett's grandfather was Edward Barrett of Cinnamon Hill, Jamaica, one of the biggest landholders in the West Indes, with a fortune made on rum and sugar. Edward Moulton Barrett, Elizabeth's father, had great wealth and a tendency to rule his household as if one of his slave plantations. For dark and unspoken reasons, he made it clear that none of his eleven children would be allowed to marry, on pain of banishment.

By middle-age, Elizabeth had long regarded this dictum as irrelevant. Tuberculosis had dominated her life since the age of fourteen; until Robert Browning, most of her adult years had been spent as a house-bound, often bed-ridden, invalid.

Browning's first contact with her was fan mail, the praise of a 33 year-old up-and-comer for a 39 year-old, internationally-famous poet. That was on January 10th, 1845; over the next twenty months, another five hundred and seventy-four letters passed between them. All but one of them would eventually be published by their son fifty years later, and they leave no doubt of their true love. The missing letter was one Browning wrote the day he first met her, after almost five months of romance by Royal Mail. It was so passionate -- and, presumably, dangerous -- that Elizabeth returned it, with instructions for burning.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning would later describe her physical improvement over these months as a resurrection, a shedding of the "graveclothes" in which she had allowed her illness and morbidity to dress her. Her family must have felt so too, on the day in January, 1846 -- a year into the relationship -- when she suddenly appeared downstairs: she had hardly been out of her room in six years, and even then only when carried. Eight months later, after she and Browning had eloped to Florence, the men in the family would virtually rebury her: her brothers refused to communicate for years; her father refused forever, returning her letters unopened, rejecting her son, and cutting her from his will. One of the last poems she wrote as Elizabeth Barrett was the sonnet to Browning in which she asks, "How do I love thee?" and then counts the ways; the first poem written in her miracle, second life as Elizabeth Barrett Browning must have been to her father: it was called "The Runaway Slave."

That second life lasted fifteen years. After his wife's death in 1861, Browning resettled in London with their son. Over the next twenty-eight years, his reputation as a poet rose steadily. Contemporary reviews judged The Ring and the Book "the supreme poetical achievement of our time," and the best since Shakespeare.

Browning had always been something of a dandy and a good talker and, despite his wife's discouragements, a compulsive socializer. In old age this became a desire to share the best tables, but hog the conversation. More than one high-society memoir regrets his pomaded hair, his enthusiastic opinions and his inability to confine his dramatic monologues to his poems.

The society ladies found Browning attractive but, despite several close calls, he made it clear that "my heart is buried in Florence." Upon his death, on December 12th, 1889, it was discovered that his wife's graveyard was full, and he was buried in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey instead. Perhaps he would not have been displeased, but probably it would not have mattered. When Elizabeth died he had inscribed lines from Dante -- another devoted Florentine -- in her bible: "I believe and I declare -- certain am I -- from this life I pass into a better, there where that lady lives of whom enamored was my soul."

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