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1861 The death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

They don’t make poetical romances as romantic as the real-life love story of the two English versifiers Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. She was the chronically ill daughter of a tyrannical father and he was a younger and more famous poet who courted her in secret. They wed, moved to Florence, Italy, and lived in bliss until her death. Here is a contemporary account of her passing:

When in the summer of 1861 the sad news reached England that Mrs. Browning was no more, the newspapers confessed with singular accord that the world had lost in her the greatest poetess that had appeared in all its generations.

Elizabeth Barrett, the subject of this supreme eulogy, was the daughter of a gentleman of fortune, and at his country-seat in Hereford-shire, among the lovely scenery of the Malvern Hills, she passed her girlhood. At the age of ten she began to attempt writing in prose and verse; and at fifteen her powers as a writer were well known to her friends. She was a diligent student, and was soon able to read Greek, not as a task, but as a recreation and delight. She began to contribute to the magazines, and a series of essays on the Greek poets proved how deeply she had passed into and absorbed their spirit. In 1833 she published an anonymous translation of the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus, which afterwards she superseded by a better version. Her public fame dates, however, from 1838, when she collected her best verses from the periodicals, and published them as The Seraphim and other Poems. 

At this time occurred a tragic accident, which for years threw a black shadow over Miss Barrett’s life. A blood-vessel having broke on her lungs, the physician ordered her to Torquay, where a house was taken for her by the sea-side, at the foot of the cliffs. Under the influence of the mild Devonshire breezes she was rapidly recovering, when, one bright summer morning, her brother and two other young men, his friends, went out in a small boat for a trip of a few hours. Just as they crossed the bar, the vessel capsized, and all on board perished. Even their bodies were never recovered. This sudden and dreadful calamity almost killed Miss Barrett. During a whole year she lay in the house incapable of removal, whilst the sound of the waves rang in her ears as the moans of the dying. 

Literature was her only solace. Her physician pleaded with her to abandon her studies, and, to quiet his importunities, she had a small edition of Plato bound so as to resemble a novel. When at last removed to London, it was in an invalid carriage, at the slow rate of twenty miles a day. In a commodious and darkened room in her father’s house in Wimpole Street she nursed her remnant of life, seeing a few choice friends, reading the best books in many languages, and writing poetry according to her inspiration. 

Gradually her health improved, and in 1846 the brightness of her life was restored and perfected in her marriage with Robert Browning. They went to Italy, first to Pisa, and then settled in Florence. Mrs. Browning’s heart became quickly involved in Italy’s struggles for liberty and unity, and various and fervent were the poetical expressions of her hopes and alarms for the result. Her love for Italy became a passion stronger even than natural patriotism. Inexplicably to English readers, she praised and trusted the Emperor of the French as Italy’s earnest friend and deliverer; and Louis Napoleon will live long ere he hear more ardent words of faith in his goodness and wisdom than the English poetess uttered concerning him. Blest in assured fame, in a rising Italy, in a pleasant Florentine home, in a husband equal in heart and intellect, and in a son in the prime of boyhood—a brief illness snapped the thread of her frail life, and she was borne to the tomb, bewailed scarcely less in Tuscany than in England.

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