The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 9. Elizabeth Barretts Poems
Returning to England before the end of the year, he read Elizabeth Barrett’s newly published Poems. They contained Lady Geraldine’s Courtship, in which he found his work mentioned with that of Tennyson and of Wordsworth, and a reference to his own “heart blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity.” Elizabeth Barrett had previously, in a series of articles on English poets in The Athenaeum, placed Browning among “high and gifted spirits”; and he had approved of her first series of articles on the early Greek Christian poets. Moreover, each knew of the other through Kenyon, Elizabeth Barrett’s second cousin, schoolfellow of Browning’s father and the special providence of both Robert Browning and his wife. Kenyon encouraged Browning to express to Elizabeth Barrett his admiration of her poems. The poet wrote to her with the unrestrained freedom of his most magnanimous character, telling her that he “loved her verses with all his heart”; and his letter, the letter “of the author of Paracelsus and king of mystics,” “threw her into ecstasies.” They became intimate through a correspondence which was at first dictated by mood and opportunity, and, afterwards, in accordance with formal “contract.” On 20 May, 1845, after the lapse of a winter and a spring, Browning came and saw her for the first time, a “little figure, which did not rise from the sofa, pale ringleted face, great, eager, wistful eyes,” and, as Elizabeth Barrett said, “he never went away again.” His declaration of love followed, prompt and decisive as a thunder-clap. It was countered with a refusal that was absolute, but all for his sake, and followed by “the triumph of a masterful passion and will which could not be put aside.”
The circumstances are too remarkable, and meant too much for both the poets not to require a brief recounting.
Elizabeth Barrett was born at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, on 6 March, 1806, the eldest of the eleven children of Edward Moulton Barrett, a West Indian planter. When she was still an infant, the family moved to Hope End, Herefordshire, the place with which the early memories recorded in Aurora Leigh, The Lost Bower and other poems are associated. Until she was about fifteen years of age, she was healthy and vigorous, although “slight and sensitive”; and she was a good horse-woman. But, either in endeavouring to saddle her pony for herself, or in riding, she injured her spine; and the hurt was the occasion, if not the cause, of her being treated as an incurable invalid by her father—so long as she was under his roof.
From Hope End, the family removed first to Sidmouth, afterwards to 74 Gloucester Place, and, finally, to Wimpole Street, London, where Browning first came to see her. The marriage took place on 12 September, 1846; and, a week later, they were on the way to Italy, where they made their permanent home in Casa Guidi, Florence.