One hundred and sixty-five years ago, in January 1845, Robert Browning wrote his first letter to Elizabeth Barrett to express his great admiration for her poetry. It would be the first of 600 letters exchanged by the two over a period of 20-months that concluded with their marriage in September of 1846.
Browning’s first letter begins: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett…so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours.”
The following day Barrett replies: “I thank you, dear Mr. Browning, from the bottom of my heart. Such a letter from such a hand! You draw me on with your kindness.”
Barrett, born in 1806, was six years older than Browning. Both were published and known poets at the time their correspondence began. In an era of great reserve, it is remarkable to read through these letters and observe that in a relatively brief period the letters from both evolve from professional kindness to friendship from affection to devotion and then passion.
Both Barrett and Browning were highly gifted children and both were voracious readers. By the age of fourteen Browning had learned Latin, Greek, French and Italian. By ten, Barrett was well versed in most of Shakespeare’s works; by her teens she had read the Greek and Latin classics in their original form. She learned Hebrew so that she might read the Old Testament without translation. Both were the products of home teaching and both were mostly self-taught.
Barrett achieved fame earlier than Browning and her works were more widely read throughout the years of their marriage. Elizabeth Barrett was living the life of a recluse in her father’s home for the five years prior to her relationship with Robert Browning. She was uncertain in their early years together that his love for her was as deep as he claimed it to be. In her “Sonnets from the Portuguese” she famously wrote of her devotion for Robert, words that live on today as some of the most moving ever expressed about the “depth and breath of love”
“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.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.”
Their letters grew in intensity in the months leading up to their marriage on September 12, 1846. Elizabeth believed that her father Edward would not approve of their plans to marry, so they decided to elope to Italy. But being the good Victorians they were, they married in secret a week prior to their departure.
One year after their correspondence began, Robert wrote to his Elizabeth: “I have no words for you, my dearest, I shall never have. You are mine, I am yours.…I shall grow old with you, and die with you – as far as I can look into the night I see the light with me.”
And Elizabeth replied:
“Ever dearest – how you can write touching things to me and how my whole being vibrates, as a string, to these! How have I deserved from God and you all that I thank you for?
The two lovers stayed in Italy. Elizabeth’s father never forgave her for marrying without his permission. They had one child together, Robert Barrett Browning born in 1849. The cause of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death is unknown. She died in Robert’s arms less than fifteen years after their marriage, on June 29, 1861. Browning died in 1889 and in his “Life in a Love:” wrote these words for his Elizabeth:
Escape me? Never - Beloved!
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both…”
The first letter:
January 10th, 1845
New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey
I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, -- and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, --whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me -- for in the first flush of delight I though I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration -- perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of herafter! -- but nothing comes of it all -- so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew ... oh, how different that is from lying to be dried and pressed flat and prized highly and put in a book with a proper account at bottom, and shut up and put away ... and the book called a 'Flora', besides!
After all, I need not give up the thought of doing that, too, in time; because even now, talking with whoever is worthy, I can give reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought -- but in this addressing myself to you, your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogher. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart -- and I love you too: do you know I was once seeing you?
Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning "would you like to see Miss Barrett?" -- then he went to announce me, -- then he returned ... you were too unwell -- and now it is years ago -- and I feel as at some untorward passage in my travels -- as if I had been close, so close, to some world's-wonder in chapel on crypt, ... only a screen to push and I might have entered -- but there was some slight ... so it now seems ... slight and just-sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be!
Well, these Poems were to be -- and this true thankful joy and pride with which I feel myself.
Yours ever faithfully
I believe in _you_ absolutely, utterly--I believe that when you bade
me, that time, be silent--that such was your bidding, and I was
silent--dare I say I think you did not know at that time the power I
have over myself, that I could sit and speak and listen as I have done
since? Let me say now--_this only once_--that I loved you from my
soul, and gave you my life, so much of it as you would take,--and all
that is _done_, not to be altered now: it was, in the nature of the
proceeding, wholly independent of any return on your part. I will not
think on extremes you might have resorted to; as it is, the assurance
of your friendship, the intimacy to which you admit me, _now_, make
the truest, deepest joy of my life--a joy I can never think fugitive
while we are in life, because I KNOW, as to me, I _could_ not
willingly displease you,--while, as to you, your goodness and
understanding will always see to the bottom of involuntary or ignorant
faults--always help me to correct them. I have done now. If I thought
you were like other women I have known, I should say so
much!--but--(my first and last word--I _believe_ in you!)--what you
could and would give me, of your affection, you would give nobly and
simply and as a giver--you would not need that I tell you--(_tell_
you!)--what would be supreme happiness to me in the event--however
--your friendship is my pride and
happiness. If you told me your love was bestowed elsewhere, and that
it was in my power to serve you _there_, to serve you there would
still be my pride and happiness.
My life is bound up with yours--my own, first and last love. What
wonder if I feared to tire you--I who, knowing you as I do, admiring
what is so admirable (let me speak), loving what must needs be loved,
fain to learn what you only can teach; proud of so much, happy in so
much of you; I, who, for all this, neither come to admire, nor feel
proud, nor be taught,--but only, only to live with you and be by
you--that is love--
I love you because I _love_ you; I see you
'once a week' because I cannot see you all day long; I think of you
all day long, because I most certainly could not think of you once an
hour less, if I tried, or went to Pisa, or 'abroad' (in every sense)
in order to 'be happy' ... a kind of adventure which you seem to
suppose you have in some way interfered with. Do, for this once,
think, and never after, on the impossibility of your ever (you know I
must talk your own language, so I shall say--) hindering any scheme of
mine, stopping any supposable advancement of mine. Do you really think
that before I found you, I was going about the world seeking whom I
might devour, that is, be devoured by, in the shape of a wife ... do
you suppose I ever dreamed of marrying? What would it mean for me,
with my life I am hardened in--considering the rational chances; how
the land is used to furnish its contingent of Shakespeare's women: or
by 'success,' 'happiness' &c. &c. you never never can be seeing for a
moment with the world's eyes and meaning 'getting rich' and all that?
Yet, put that away, and what do you meet at every turn, if you are
hunting about in the dusk to catch my good, but yourself?
_I_ know who has got it, caught it, and means to keep it on his
heart--the person most concerned--_I_, dearest, who cannot play the
disinterested part of bidding _you_ forget your 'protestation' ...
what should I have to hold by, come what will, through years, through
this life, if God shall so determine, if I were not sure, _sure_ that
the first moment when you can suffer me with you 'in that relation,'
you will remember and act accordingly. I will, as you know, conform my
life to _any_ imaginable rule which shall render it possible for your
life to move with it and possess it, all the little it is worth.
For your friends ... whatever can be 'got over,' whatever opposition
may be rational, will be easily removed, I suppose. You know when I
spoke lately about the 'selfishness' I dared believe I was free from,
I hardly meant the low faults of ... I shall say, a different
organization to mine--which has vices in plenty, but not those.
Besides half a dozen scratches with a pen make one stand up an
apparent angel of light, from the lawyer's parchment; and Doctors'
Commons is one bland smile of applause. The selfishness I deprecate is
one which a good many women, and men too, call 'real passion'--under
the influence of which, I ought to say 'be mine, what ever happens to
_you_'--but I know better, and you know best--and you know me, for all
this letter, which is no doubt in me, I feel, but dear entire goodness
and affection, of which God knows whether I am proud or not--and now
you will let me be, will not you. Let me have my way, live my life,
love my love.
When I am, praying God to bless her ever,
I shall only say I was
scheming how to get done with England and go to my heart in Italy. And
now, my love--I am round you ... my whole life is wound up and down
and over you.... I feel you stir everywhere. I am not conscious of
thinking or feeling but _about_ you, with some reference to you--so I
will live, so may I die! And you have blessed me _beyond_ the _bond_,
in more than in giving me yourself to love; inasmuch as you believed
me from the first ... what you call 'dream-work' _was_ real of its
kind, did you not think? and now you believe me, _I_ believe and am
happy, in what I write with my heart full of love for you. Why do you
tell me of a doubt, as now, and bid me not clear it up, 'not answer
you?' Have I done wrong in thus answering? Never, never do _me_ direct
_wrong_ and hide for a moment from me what a word can explain as now.
You see, you thought, if but for a moment, I loved your intellect--or
what predominates in your poetry and is most distinct from your
heart--better, or as well as you--did you not? and I have told you
every thing,--explained everything ... have I not? And now I will dare
... yes, dearest, kiss you back to my heart again; my own. There--and
And since I wrote what is above, I have been reading among other poems
that sonnet--'Past and Future'--which affects me more than any poem I
ever read. How can I put your poetry away from you, even in these
ineffectual attempts to concentrate myself upon, and better apply
myself to what remains?--poor, poor work it is; for is not that sonnet
to be loved as a true utterance of yours? I cannot attempt to put down
the thoughts that rise; may God bless me, as you pray, by letting that
beloved hand shake the less ... I will only ask, _the less_ ... for
being laid on mine through this life! And, indeed, you write down, for
me to calmly read, that I make you happy! Then it is--as with all
power--God through the weakest instrumentality ... and I am past
expression proud and grateful--My love,
I am your
...when she sent him a ring with her hair
I was happy, so happy before! But I am happier and richer now. My
love--no words could serve here, but there is life before us, and to
the end of it the vibration now struck will extend--I will live and
die with your beautiful ring, your beloved hair--comforting me,
Let me write to-morrow--when I think on all you have been and are to
me, on the wonder of it and the deliciousness, it makes the paper
words that come seem vainer than ever--To-morrow I will write.
May God bless you, my own, my precious--
I am all your own
I do not, nor will not think, dearest, of ever 'making you happy'--I
can imagine no way of working that end, which does not go straight to
my own truest, only true happiness--yet in every such effort there is
implied some distinction, some supererogatory grace, or why speak of
it at all? _You_ it is, are my happiness, and all that ever can be:
But never, if you would not, what you will not do I know, never revert
to _that_ frightful wish. 'Disappoint me?' 'I speak what I know and
testify what I have seen'--you shall 'mystery' again and again--I do
not dispute that, but do not _you_ dispute, neither, that mysteries
are. But it is simply because I do most justice to the mystical part
of what I feel for you, because I consent to lay most stress on that
fact of facts that I love you, beyond admiration, and respect, and
esteem and affection even, and do not adduce any reason which stops
short of accounting for _that_, whatever else it would account for,
because I do this, in pure logical justice--_you_ are able to turn and
wonder (if you _do ... now_) what causes it all! My love, only wait,
only believe in me, and it cannot be but I shall, little by little,
become known to you--after long years, perhaps, but still one day: I
_would_ say _this_ now--but I will write more to-morrow. God bless my
sweetest--ever, love, I am your
I _do_ love you, plainly, surely, more than
ever, more than any day in my life before. It is your secret, the why,
the how; the experience is mine. What are you doing to me?--in the
to this she wrote back...
you love me _more_, you say?--Shall I thank you or God?
Both,--indeed--and there is no possible return from me to either of
you! I thank you as the unworthy may ... and as we all thank God. How
shall I ever prove what my heart is to you? How will you ever see it
as I feel it? I ask myself in vain.
I feel, after
reading these letters,--as ordinarily after seeing you, sweetest, or
hearing from you,--that if _marriage_ did not exist, I should
infallibly _invent_ it. I should say, no words, no _feelings_ even,
do justice to the whole conviction and _religion_ of my soul--and
though they may be suffered to represent some one minute's phase of
it, yet, in their very fulness and passion they do injustice to the
_unrepresented, other minute's_, depth and breadth of love ... which
let my whole life (I would say) be devoted to telling and proving and
exemplifying, if not in one, then in another way--let me have the
plain palpable power of this; the assured time for this ... something
of the satisfaction ...
I will care for it no more, dearest--I am wedded to you now. I believe
no human being could love you more--that thought consoles me for my