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Elizabeth Barrett Browning; poet of faith, grace, and love

Elizabeth Barrett Browning; poet of faith, grace, and love
Elizabeth Barrett Browning; poet of faith, grace, and love How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…... Sonnets from the Portuguese #

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…... Sonnets from the Portuguese # 43

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: major poet

Barret closed out the romantic period and began the Victorian. She was important in both,completing the first with the simple language, love of nature, and honor of the humble, then launching the second on a solid foundation of love, faith, and dignity.
She was prominently mentioned as poet laureate when Wordsworth died and was more sought after than her husband in Europe and America, highly regarded by Emily Dickerson who hung a portrait of “that foreign lady” on her wall.
Barrett was solidly Christian. I was struck in my reading by this statement:
One of Barrett Browning’s most fundamental convictions was that sexual activity outside of marriage was immoral, but she believed that society should be more compassionate in its treatment of women who had been victims of sexual violence. – the Poetry Foundation.

This is especially striking today in the 21st century in the “woke” feminist approach to literature and history. Elizabeth’s conviction and morality had a solid Christian foundation and makes her work and life a continuing blessing.

Barrett Family Anchored in the Bible

Her family raised her in the Congregational church but encouraged Elizabeth to think through her theology, and she took this seriously. She taught herself Hebrew, read the Old Testament, and began writing poetry. She tellingly said “poetry is where God is,” but articulated more than that:

We want the touch of Christ’s hand upon our literature as it touched other dead things,” she says:

“We want the sense of the saturation of Christ’s blood upon the souls of our poets, that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation.

Something of this has been perceived in art when its glory was at its fullest. Something of a yearning after this may be seen among the Greek Christian poets, something which would have been much with a stronger faculty.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning,

Barrett fed on the classics.

Elizabeth saw something more of this in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which she read in Italian. Its enormous, universal reputation as the masterwork of Western literature is usually credited to his use of the people’s language and the then newly published theology of Thomas Aquinas, but Barrett saw there the touch of Christ’s hand.

This is even more so in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the greatest English poem. Barrett loved it, was inspired by it, and even composed some blank verse dialogue modeled on Milton’s conversation in the Garden of Eden. She gives these words to the Angel Gabriel as he chastens Lucifer:

If thou hadst gazed upon the face of God This morning for a moment, thou hadst known That only pity fitly can chastise: Hate but avenges.

Milton was an example to her in his life and learning as well. She too was literate in the ancient languages as well as French and Italian. All of these she used to polish the language and drama of her poetry, which she began writing at age 11.

Wealthy Barrett Family

The Barretts were wealthy people having established themselves by running sugar plantations in Jamaica and acquiring large land estates in England. The first-born of 12 children, Elizabeth was encouraged to write by her father who dubbed her “the poet laureate of Hope End” and whose mother collected and preserved her early poems.

Financially and socially secure, the Barretts were plagued by illness and death, losing their mother, a sister, and 2 brothers before Elizabeth herself became ill.

Illness struck Elizabeth in her early teens, undiagnosable at the time but a prelude to the more serious consumption/tuberculosis that would strike and debilitate her in her 30s. This kept her secluded and devoted to her poetry and devotions.

The Barretts of Wimple Street

Her work was very well-received, and she became the most well-known poet in England, outshining Robert Browning, the leading poet, and playwright of the time. Browning admired her work, wrote her letters, wooed her, and married her in 1844.

Their love story is told in the Barretts of Wimple Street, a 1930s play and later movies, which were widely popular in the first half of the 20th century.

It is an edifying work, and the whole life and work of EBB is a testimony to the power of a woman who loves the Lord Jesus and writes poems touched by Christ’s hands.

Elizabeth’s father hated Robert Browning whom he regarded as an “adventurer” after Barrett’s money. But she continued the romance writing the famous Sonnets from the Portuguese about their love, courtship, and marriage. Her father disinherited Elizabeth when she married, but she was faithful to her spouse and moved with him to Italy, where she lived the rest of her short life.

There, after three miscarriages, they had a son who turned out to be the joy of their lives. She was a devoted wife and mother and drew her less devoted husband closer to Jesus.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Legacy

Her place in literature grew after her death, due to the Sonnets from the Portuguese, which I consider the best sonnet sequence in English, next to Shakespeare’s, and by far the finest since the 19th century. What singles her out from the other famous women poets of the 19th century is her devotion to God and its expression in her poems.

Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God. Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

What a powerful influence for the Gospel she has been and an example of an accomplished artist using her gift to honor Jesus. Oh, how we need such gifted women to shine for Him today!

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