Literature

The Best Elizabeth Barrett Browning Poems Everyone Should Read

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) is less famous now as a poet in her own right, and more familiar as the wife of Robert Browning, whom she courted through a series of extraordinary love letters in the 1840s. It was not always this way. Once upon a time, Robert Browning was the struggling obscure poet and Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the one who, upon Wordsworth’s death in 1850, was considered for the post of Poet Laureate. (In the end, Tennyson got the job.) But Barrett Browning left behind some of the most interesting Victorian poems, written in a variety of forms, genres, and styles. Here are some of her very best poems.

The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’. As well as writing some of the most famous love poetry of the Victorian era (see below), Elizabeth Barrett Browning also explored and tackled social issues in her poetry. In this poem, a dramatic monologue, she writes in the character of a black female slave in the United States, on the run having endured a series of horrors: her lover has been murdered and she has been raped, and the baby that resulted was deemed ‘too white’ because of its mixed ethnicity. A tragic poem (we won’t give away the ending here though the stanzas below provide a clue), the poem is still a powerful indictment of the treatment of black slaves in nineteenth-century America. The poem was written to raise funds for the abolitionist cause.

Our wounds are different. Your white men
Are, after all, not gods indeed,
Nor able to make Christs again
Do good with bleeding. We who bleed . . .
(Stand off!) we help not in our loss!
We are too heavy for our cross,
And fall and crush you and your seed.

I fall, I swoon! I look at the sky:
The clouds are breaking on my brain;
I am floated along, as if I should die
Of liberty’s exquisite pain –
In the name of the white child, waiting for me
In the death-dark where we may kiss and agree,
White men, I leave you all curse-free
In my broken heart’s disdain!

Click on the link above to read the full poem.

Bianca among the Nightingales’. This is a tragic love poem, and another example of the dramatic monologue form. Set in Italy, it sees Bianca weeping among the sorrowful song of the nightingales for her lost love:

The cypress stood up like a church
That night we felt our love would hold,
And saintly moonlight seemed to search
And wash the whole world clean as gold;
The olives crystallized the vales’
Broad slopes until the hills grew strong:
The fireflies and the nightingales
Throbbed each to either, flame and song.
The nightingales, the nightingales.

Upon the angle of its shade
The cypress stood, self-balanced high;
Half up, half down, as double-made,
Along the ground, against the sky.
And we, too! from such soul-height went
Such leaps of blood, so blindly driven,
We scarce knew if our nature meant
Most passionate earth or intense heaven.
The nightingales, the nightingales.

We paled with love, we shook with love,
We kissed so close we could not vow;
Till Giulio whispered, `Sweet, above
God’s Ever guarantees this Now.’
And through his words the nightingales
Drove straight and full their long clear call,
Like arrows through heroic mails,
And love was awful in it all.
The nightingales, the nightingales.

A Musical Instrument’. Focusing on the piper-god from Greek mythology, Pan, this poem tells of how the god of shepherds fashions a flute from the reeds in a river, and starts to produce enchanting music:

What was he doing, the great god Pan,
Down in the reeds by the river ?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river.

He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
From the deep cool bed of the river :
The limpid water turbidly ran,
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
Ere he brought it out of the river.

Click on the link above to read the full poem.

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways’. This is a love poem written about Barrett Browning’s own beloved, Robert. The poem was first published in a sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, in 1850, though the poems that make up the sequence were written around five years earlier. It’s a little-known fact that the first ever sonnet sequence in English was written by a woman, and throughout history the sonnet sequence has tended to be associated with male poets: Petrarch, Sir Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, George Meredith. And although Barrett Browning’s title sounds as though she is translating poems written by some Portuguese sonneteer, that title Sonnets from the Portuguese was in fact a little in-joke: ‘Portuguese’ was Robert’s affectionate nickname for Elizabeth, so these sonnets are from her and her alone: sonnets from Robert’s beloved ‘Portuguese’.

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…

Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers. Another of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, is a fine love poem about her courtship and eventual marriage to her fellow poet, Robert Browning. In terms of its form, ‘Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers’ is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. But unlike Petrarch’s medieval sonnets in the courtly love tradition, the relationship between the man and woman has been consummated in Barrett Browning’s poem. The courting has involved the gift of ‘many flowers’ – flowers, of course, are often associated with poetry, as the etymology of the term anthology demonstrates.

Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers…

‘If Thou Must Love Me, Let It Be for Naught’. Another poem from Barrett Browning’s sonnet sequence to Robert, this one sees her espousing the idea of ‘love for love’s sake’. With its catalogue of features which the poet says she wishes her lover will not single out, it forms a neat counterpoint to ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ above:

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, Belovèd, 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.

Aurora Leigh. Barrett Browning’s love affair with epic poetry began at a young age: when she was just twelve years old, she wrote The Battle of Marathon, an epic poem about the battle between the Greeks and Persians in 490 BC. But her crowning achievement in the genre would be her long blank-verse novel Aurora Leigh (1857), about an aspiring female poet, which takes in issues of marriage, female authorship and independence, and what happened to women who ‘strayed’ outside of the accepted norms of Victorian society: the so-called ‘fallen woman’, embodied here by Aurora’s friend Marian Erle. Although it’s often considered a verse novel, Aurora Leigh contains elements of epic poetry.

To Flush, My Dog’. ‘A dog is a man’s best friend’, they say. But one hopes that in this case, as the old jest has it, ‘man embraces woman’, and that what the anonymous author of this proverb had in mind was the close bond between dogs and humans, whether men or women. Flush, the name of the cocker spaniel belonging to Barrett Browning, was clearly a close friend of his poet-owner, and Barrett Browning penned this lovely poem about her beloved dog.

Loving friend, the gift of one,
Who, her own true faith, hath run,
Through thy lower nature;
Be my benediction said
With my hand upon thy head,
Gentle fellow-creature!

Like a lady’s ringlets brown,
Flow thy silken ears adown
Either side demurely,
Of thy silver-suited breast
Shining out from all the rest
Of thy body purely.

Click on the link above to read the full poem.

4 Comments

  1. Good post. I have long thought Aurora Leigh an outstanding achievement.

  2. As always, a wonderful addition to our understanding and appreciation of poetry. But I think she was the WIFE, not the husband of Browning:

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) is less famous now as a poet in her own right, and more familiar as the husband of Robert Browning, whom she courted through a series of extraordinary love letters in the 1840s.

  3. It is such a shame that Elizabeth Barrett Browning is not more widely studied for her own sake. Be that as it may, I couldn’t help but gasp at the coincidence as I have just been searching Youtube for all the songs I can find from the musical “Robert and Elizabeth” – and now, I stumble across this article!

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