Why This Room is Special
‘I assume no power of art, except that power of love towards it…’
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1838
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born to a wealthy family of plantation owners in 1806. Serious illness in adolescence and young womanhood caused permanent physical damage, but her confinement fuelled her imagination, creativity and will to learn.
As a poet writing in the mid-nineteenth century, when women’s rights became a focus of passionate discussion and debate, Barrett Browning’s work often meditates upon and challenges the position and role of women in society. But the titles displayed on the book spine in this room do so in ways that are perhaps less overt than in, say, her sonnets to the female poet George Sand or her epic Aurora Leigh (1856). Some critics felt that The Seraphim and Other Poems was immature; Barrett Browning herself pre-empted this response, writing in her preface to the collection: ‘I would fain hope to write hereafter better verses, but I never can feel more intensely than at this moment…’ Meanwhile, William Wordsworth saw great potential in the work and genius in its maker, who would become the first woman to be considered for the role of poet laureate after his death in 1850.
Barrett Browning was captivated by classical myths and poetry from childhood: in later years, she satirised her 10-year-old self though the character of Beth, who aspires to live on a Greek island with her lover Lord Byron and become ‘the feminine Homer’. After the initial anonymous publication of her version of Aeschylus’s tragic play Prometheus Bound, the poet claimed and revised the work before three successive publications.
Barrett Browning’s fascination with and love for Italy, both past and present, can be appreciated in the poem Casa Guidi Windows. In 1846, she married the poet Robert Browning, who was younger and from a lower social class, against her family’s wishes; to escape repercussions, they moved to Italy. Casa Guidi Windows was begun the following year and, by the time that it was completed, the Brownings only son had been born. The speaker of the poem looks out from the window of the family home onto Risorgimento Italy: a time and place of great political, social and cultural change. Barrett Browning’s own experiences as a new mother are woven into these reflections upon the birth of a modern nation.