Monday, March 6, 2017

Born Today March 6: Elizabeth Barrett Browning


English poet Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett was born in County Durham, England on this date in history; she was the eldest of 12 children.  Her family had considerable business interests on plantations in Jamaica.  Her family immigrated from there, when her father decided that he wished to start and raise his family on British soil.  The family's businesses were still centered there, and their considerable wealth, from both parent's families, was derived from there, including the owning of a large number of slaves.  Her earliest education came at home, along with her brother.  Their tutor was one Daniel McSwiney.  She is reported to have started writing verses at the age of just 4 years.  She was apparently studious learner and she claimed that she started reading novels at the age of 6.  She formed an interest in Greek while reading Pope's translation of Homer at the age of 8; and by the age of 10 she was studying the Greek language.  At the age of 12, she composed her own Homeric epic poem.  It would be this poem, The Battle Of Marathon,  that would be published privately in 1820.  Her father greatly encouraged her writing and this resulted in one of the largest collections of juvenilia of any English writer in history.  Around this time, she and two sisters came down with a mystery illness, from which she would not fully recover, though her two sisters did.  It is unknown what the illness could have actually been, it left her with loss of mobility and in near constant pain in the head and spine.  Some have speculated that it may have, in fact, been caused from a fall while dismounting a horse, but this is unlikely, since the symptoms occurred before that (it may be that the illness caused the fall?).  For lack of any other diagnosis, she was treated, unsuccessfully for a spinal problem.  In 1837, she also developed a lung ailment, but the two diseases are thought to be have been unrelated.  For the pain, she took laudanum, and was later prescribed morphine; unfortunately she would become addicted, a problem that plagued a large portion of her adult life.  During this period of time she had become very influenced by the philosophy of Mary Wollstonecraft; she was starting to oppose slavery.  When slavery was abolished in the United Kingdom, her father suffered major financial losses; but she seems to have been unaware of this.  By the early 1840's she had already lost several key family members (not least were her mother and grandmother), when two of her brothers died.  This took it's toll on her already fragile health.  Nonetheless, she also experienced success during this time, making the transition to prose.  By 1850, she was a serious rival for poet laureate along with Tennyson, upon the death of Wordsworth.  Her published volume of poetry dating from 1844 inspired poet and playwright Robert Browning to write to her with praise.  After meeting, the two embarked on a romance that captivated the country.  The two were married in secret, as she knew her father would disapprove.  That he did, and when discovering the marriage, he disinherited her--curiously doing the same for all of his children who had dared to wed.  The couple left England for France for a honeymoon, and eventually settled in Italy.  There they enjoyed a great deal of fame and lived in comfort.  Despite her health troubles, she gave birth to a son at the age of 43 in 1849.  The couple lived in Italy until her death on 29 June 1861, she was 55 years old.  She most probably died from the lung complaint, the symptoms of which suggested tuberculosis; her reliance on opiates to ease her discomfort may have contributed to her early demise.  She is buried in an elaborate above-ground tomb in the the Protestant English Cemetery in Florence.  In regards to film, only three films, and two television episodes, have made use of her writing for source material, and two of those came in the silent era.  The first was a social commentary entitled The Cry Of The Children, which was based on poem of hers and showed the evils of child labor.  The film was controversial upon it's release for showing real children toiling in a real mill.  It is one of only very few surviving films from the Thanhouser Company and dates from 1912.  The second is Aurora Leigh from 1915 and is based on the poem of the same name. 

For More:


Poetry Foundation


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