How Do I Love Thee
September 12, 1846: Elizabeth Barrett secretly weds Robert Browning. Elizabeth was the eldest of 12 children and born in Ledbury, England in 1806. Her father was a wealthy man, the owner of a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Elizabeth gained an impressive education because she was permitted to sit in on lessons presented to her brother. She contracted a chronic illness in her early teens, possibly tuberculosis. She wrote her first poem as a child of 6 or 8 (the date on the manuscript has been tampered with) and was published by age 14. She kept up a lively correspondence with several intellectuals of the time.
Robert was born in a London suburb. His father, a clerk for the Bank of England, had a personal library of about 6,000 books. Robert grew up reading the often obscure or esoteric tomes. He loved both poetry and natural history and wrote a book of poems by age 12. He was not amenable to institutionalized schooling and was educated by a tutor. He was a polyglot, speaking five languages fluently by age 14. As a child of the times, he briefly embraced atheism and became a vegetarian. He spent one year at University College London before leaving. He was not eligible to attend either Oxford or Cambridge due to religious requirements.
Elizabeth continued to write poetry after her brother drowned. In mourning, she rarely left her bedroom. She became one of the most respected Victorian Era poetesses. She published, in 1844, a volume entitled Poems. Robert was delighted and began a correspondence with the author. The two met in 1845 which as no small feat. Elizabeth, a semi-invalid, was further hampered by her totalitarian father’s whims. He kept his children, even as adults, virtual prisoners in their home on Wimpole Street.
Elizabeth, age 40, and Robert, age 36, managed to outwit Mr. Barrett. They eloped and fled to the continent. Elizabeth’s health improved. They first lived in Pisa and then moved to Florence. The couple had a son in 1849. After his wife’s death in 1861, Robert moved back to England and became one of the foremost Victorian poets. His career blossomed in his middle years. While he had published prior to his exile on the continent, his work was vastly improved by his time alone with his family.
“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.” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“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 it and pluck blackberries.” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made.
Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half;
Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!'” – Robert Browning
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” – Robert Browning
This article first appeared at Examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: Elizabeth and Robert had secretly married and she returned to her father’s house. She and her companion/nurse, Elizabeth Wilson, left to walk the dog and they never returned to the house again, instead they fled with Robert to the continent. The couple honeymooned in Paris and then went on to Italy. Wilson, her nurse, remained with them. They were wise to not tell Mr. Barrett of the wedding as he promptly disinherited his daughter when he learned of her marriage – the same as he had done for any of the Barrett children who wed. Elizabeth was prepared for her father’s outrage but was very disappointed when her brothers also expressed displeasure and dislike of her new husband. Their son was born in 1849, the only of five pregnancies to result in a live birth. He later married but had no legitimate children of his own.