ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING (1806-1861)
The love story of Robert Browning and Elisabeth Barret often reminds of the
courtship and marriage of their contemporaries, Richard and Clara Schumann. In both romances a possessive
father tries to prevent his daughter's match; in each case a sense of spiritual kinship, shared artistic
purpose, and deep passion prevail over the obstacles, and, interestingly, in both stories it is the woman
who is the more famous artist at the start of the relationship.
Robert Browning enjoyed a privileged only-child existence, complete with excellent tutors, travel,
and the leisure to pursue his literary inclinations. His early critical reception was eclipsed by
that of Tennyson's. While his publication of PARACELSUS in 1835 did win him recognition, his next
published work, SORDELLO (1840), met with such vituperation as to require almost two decades to repair
his standing. It was during this period of emotional fragility that he read Elizabeth Barrett's 1844 poems.
Elizabeth Barrett had received a classical education and displayed a literary gift from girlhood.
Her first collection of poetry was so highly regarded that she was considered to succeed Wordsworth
as Poet Laureate. Made an invalid as much by a back injury she suffered as a youth as by the controlling
presence of her jealous father, EBB was a reclusive, bedridden spinster-poetess when Robert Browning
initiated a correspondence with her in 1845. Their love letters, some of the most eloquent in the language,
led to a meeting from which sprang up between them, despite the objections of her father and Elizabeth's own
feelings of inadequacy for wifedom, an intense passion that led to their secret engagement and subsequent
elopement to Italy in September 1846.
There, for fifteen years of happy married life, they lived primarily in Florence, where their home,
the Casa Guidi, became a spiritual mecca for the expatriate English-American community. Together they
raised their son, Robert Wiedemann, whom they nicknamed Penini, embraced the cause of Italian
unity, and continued to write. Elizabeth published SONNETS FROM THE PORTUGUESE (1850), CASA GUIDI WINDOWS (1851)
and AURORA LEIGH(1857), as well as a collection of poems that were published posthumously; Robert found
a new mature voice in CHRISTMAS EVE AND EASTER DAY (1850) and MEN AND WOMEN (1855).
When Elizabeth died in her husband's arms in 1861, Robert Browning decided to return with his son to
England where his poetry found increasing favor as he experimented with new forms. In 1864 he issued
DRAMATIS PERSONAE, a collection of psychologically insightful dramatic monologues for fictional as well as
historical characters such as the painters Andrea del Sarto and Fra Lippo Lippi or the Bishop of St. Praxis.
Drawing on his intimate knowledge of Italian art, music, and history, he contributed mightily to the late
19th century revival of interest in the Renaissance--a movement which also spawned the English Pre-Raphaelites.
This volume, together with THE RING AND THE BOOK (1868-9), re-established his reputation.
He wrote prolifically for the remainder of his life, as Browning Societies were founded to lionize him.
He died in Venice in 1889 and was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.
"AH, LOVE, BUT A DAY"
Listen to "Ah, Love, But A Day" in the Songbook
AH, LOVE, BUT A DAY!
by Robert Browning
Ah, Love, but a day
And the world has changed!
The sun's away,
And the bird estranged;
The wind has dropped
And the sky's deranged:
Summer, summer has stopped.
Look in my eyes!
Wilt thou change too?
Should I fear surprise?
Shall I find aught new
In the old and dear,
In the good and true,
With the changing year?
Ah, look in my eyes, look in my eyes
Wilt thou change too?
From SONNETS FROM THE PORTUGUESE
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only. Do not say,
'I love her for her smile--her look--her way
Of speaking gently--for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day.'--
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
be changed, or change for thee--and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry--
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love's sake, that evermore
Thou may'st love on, through love's eternity.
Song from PIPPA PASSES (set by Ned Rorem)
The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his heaven--
All's right with the world!