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Paper read at the Modern Language Association, San Francisco. 1979; Lecture given with slides, British Institute, 1996

Florentine Lily on Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Tomb

lizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett was a Regency child born in 1806 to parents who profited from the Slave Trade to the West Indies, her father, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, owning the slave plantation of Cinnamon Hill in Jamaica, her mother's family being Newcastle slave trade shipowners. Her father, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, with his sister, Sir Thomas Lawrence's famous 'Pinkie' and whose real name was Sarah, had come to England from Jamaica, Sarah dying in 1795, very soon after her famous portrait was painted, from tuberculosis.

With that slave wealth her father built Hope End in 1810, near Malvern, on the Welsh border, which he modeled on a Turkish seraglio (Turks also owned slaves) and which Elizabeth described as 'crowded with minarets and domes, crowned with metal spires and crescents'. He also stocked its library with books and engaged for his oldest son, also an Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, a tutor from Ireland, Daniel McSwiney. He encouraged his first-born child, Elizabeth, to share in her brothers' lessons and to explore the library. But he let her know that only the first-born son would inherit the slave wealth, not the daughters, and he even named the last-born sons of his twelve children, Septimius and Octavius, to indicate their place in the succession. The oldest boy was known as `Bro'. The older sister competed with her younger brother in Latin and Greek, on her own studying French, Italian and Hebrew. She adored Byron and Greek and wrote The Battle of Marathon in their styles when she was eleven. Elizabeth, separated from Bro at his departure for Charterhouse, collapsed with tuberculosis. She nevertheless published poems in journals about Greece and Byron, and in 1826 published Essay on Mind, With Other Poems, the printing costs being paid for by a Jamaican family slave, Mary Trepsack. This volume prompted her friendships with Sir Uvedale Price and with blind Hugh Boyd, both Grecian scholars. Her letters on Greek metrics to Sir Uvedale Price, the classical scholar and friend of Wordsworth, were published under his name in 1827. She became Hugh Boyd's amanuensis and read Aeschylus, Sophocles and the Greek Fathers with him.

The Legacies of British Slavery website of the University College of London documents the reparations paid to Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett for his slave ownership in Jamaica:

Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett 
Awardee Jamaica St Ann 632 (Retreat Pen) £4718 10S 0D [250 Enslaved]
Awardee [Owner-in-fee] Jamaica Trelawney 208 (Cambridge Estate) £4392 12S 4D [224 Enslaved]
Awardee Jamaica Trelawney 637 (Oxford) £3342 5S 10D [173 Enslaved]

The Slave Trade had been abolished the year of Bro's birth, 1807. The Slave Insurrection in the West Indies led to the Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire, 1832-33. The Barretts were therefore forced to sell Hope End, moving first to Sidmouth, and eventually living in the Marylebone district in London, the residential area popular with West Indian slave owners. Elizabeth, until just before her death, owned shares in the at first slave, then convict, ship, the 'David Lyon', which would continue to pay for her addiction. the Her cousin John Kenyon gave Elizabeth Barrett Robert Browning's poem Paracelsus to read, 1835. That poem's subject would have excited Elizabeth for she was already addicted, from the treatment for her childhood spinal tuberculosis, to opium in the form of laudanum, which had been invented by Paracelsus. Kenyon knew both young poets, all three being of West Indian backgrounds, the Kenyons and Barretts from Jamaica, the Brownings from St Kitts. Kenyon had Elizabeth to dinner to his house where she met William Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor, 1836. Tragedy struck when Elizabeth, who had become seriously ill again with tuberculosis for the past several years, was sent to convalesce in Devon and begged that Bro stay with her there. He, the son and heir to Cinnamon Hill in Jamaica, drowned in Torbay, 11 July, 1840. Her poetry during this period is filled with images of death and angels. Elizabeth returned to 50 Wimpole Street in 1841 in a carriage with a hundred springs. Friends came to her help, Miss Mitford giving her the spaniel Flush and Richard Horne commissioning work from her, a translation from Chaucer in 1841, a poem 'The Cry of the Children', written in response to his 'Report on the Employment of Children in Mines and Factories' 1842-43, and which influenced legislation in the House of Lords, and essays for A New Spirit of the Age, 1844, which included essays upon herself and Robert Browning. A series of portraits were sketched in June through August 1843 by Alfred Barrett Moulton Barrett of the other remaining three brothers, Henry, Septimius and Octavius, and two sisters, Henrietta and Arabella, of the Wimpole Street family. And one of Elizabeth herself with Flush, the dog to be written about by Virginia Woolf. Elizabeth, at this time, was sealed into her room to protect her from drafts. Her father prayed with her each night between eleven and twelve. She was attended by her maid Elizabeth Wilson, nicknamed Lily, and by her brothers and sisters. During the day Elizabeth Barrett read, wrote innumerable sprightly and uncomplaining letters which flew about London with Rowland Hill's penny red stamps upon their tiny envelopes, and she composed poetry and drowsed from opium. Benjamin Haydon, whom she never met, struck up a friendship and wanted her to edit his papers. He sent her his paintings including this one of Wordsworth upon Helvellyn, now in the National Portrait Gallery which Elizabeth's brothers in 1842 had hung in her room. She sent him this poem which she published in the Athenaeum. Wordsworth upon Helvellyn! . . . He with forehead bowed And humble-lidded eyes, as one inclined Before the sovran thoughts of his own mind, Takes here his rightful place as poet-priest By the high altar . . .' Also hung in her room were these framed engravings of Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, taken from Richard Horne's New Spirit of the Age. When Robert visited Elizabeth at Wimpole Street she had her brothers turn these engravings to the wall. They eventually came with her to Italy and were placed in Casa Guidi's salone. In the same year Horne's New Spirit of the Age was published Elizabeth Barrett published 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship', a work hastily written at the request of her publisher to make up two volumes of her Poems. In it she described a low-born poet Bertram, being wooed by the Lady Geraldine of landed estates in Sussex. Elizabeth's poem, in print, proposes marriage to both Tennyson and Browning, neither of whom she had yet met. Robert Browning had already published Bells and Pomegranates. Elizabeth's proposals are couched in the form of poems read by Bertram to Geraldine:

John Kenyon gave the mint-new Poems to Robert Browning's family, and he, returning from Italy and reading these lines, dashed off his first letter to Elizabeth Barrett, 10 January 1845, 'I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett. . . . I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart - and I love you too: do you know I was once not very far from seeing - really 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 - .' On 20 May they at last met in Elizabeth's Wimpole Street sickroom. The letters exchanged between the two were kept by Elizabeth in this collapsible leather binder, by Robert in this inlaid box. The letters are filled with learning and with love, with images of scarlet poppies, alluding to Elizabeth's opium addiction, with references to pomegranates, for Elizabeth asks Robert about his poems' title 'Bells and Pomegranates', and she guesses that Robert is part Jewish as well as from the West Indies and that the title is from the Bells and Pomegranates embroidered on Aaron's High Priestly robe. He replies that 'The Rabbis make Bells and Pomegranates symbolical of Pleasure and Profit, the gay and the grave, the Poetry and the Prose, Singing and Sermonizing - such a mixture of effects as in the original hour . . . of . . . creation, I meant the whole should prove at last'. They are filled too with ideas about life and art and Elizabeth says she desires to write a sort of novel poem like 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship' which shall rush 'into drawing rooms and the like "where angels fear to tread"'. Robert in these letters sneers at women's books, like the novels written by George Sand, and at women's sonnets. Elizabeth, cut to the quick, for she had already begun her sonnet cycle, did not tell him of these poems and waited to give them to him for years. These Sonnets, too, came with the rest of the luggage from Wimpole Street, along with the framed engravings of Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson, and the collapsible leather binder containing Robert's revered love letters, first to Petrarch's Vaucluse, then to Italy. For on 12 September 1846 Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett, Spinster, aged forty, married Robert Browning, Bachelor, aged thirty-four, at St Marylebone's Church and on 19 September they eloped to Europe, with Flush and Lily Wilson, meeting Anna Jameson and her niece, Gerardine, in Paris, and journeying on together to Pisa. Elizabeth had based the heroine of Lady Geraldine's Courtship on Jameson's essay on Surrey and Geraldine in The Loves of the Poets.

In Pisa Elizabeth became pregnant without realising it and wrote a strange poem based on her family's slave background. It is titled 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point'. In it the speaker is a young raped slave who murders her half-white child, yet refuses to curse her own murderers in her broken-heart's disdain. The pregnancy miscarried, Lily Wilson struggling to get her mistress to cut down on the laudanum in order to have a child.

Elizabeth and Robert left Pisa, coming to Florence where they met Hiram Powers, the American and part Native American sculptor of genius. Another poem, based on Hiram Power's sculpture 'The Greek Slave', expresses similar sentiments as does 'The Runaway Slave'. Elizabeth's sonnet speaks out against all forms of slavery, East and West, in Greece, enslaved in Byron's day by the Turks, in Russia, where the nobles owned serfs, and in America and the West Indies where whites, including her own father, owned black slaves shipped over from Africa, in ships such as those owned by her own mother's family and in one of which, the 'David Lyon', Elizabeth herself held a part share. In this poem she is speaking not only of owners and slaves but also of fathers and daughters, for Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett even treated his children like slaves, particularly his daughters, forbidding any of them to marry. He never forgave Elizabeth's eloping with Robert.

The sonnet was read by Queen Victoria and the sculpture seen by her for it was exhibited at the centre of the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, which Queen Victoria visited, leaning upon the Prince Consort's arm. The poem and the sculpture are nineteenth-century Anglo-American readings - and reawakenings - by women as well as men, of Michelangelo's sculptures of slaves struggling to be freed from stone.

The Brownings decided to go to Vallombrosa to escape from the heat of Florence, Elizabeth needing to be drawn on skins by oxen up the mountain side which then lacked a road, only to find that the Abbot would not let them stay longer than a few days. While there Robert Browning played the organ in the Abbey church because John Milton had done so. And Elizabeth gathered up its fallen leaf similes out of Virgil and Dante and Spenser and Milton to place them into her own poetry, Milton having written:

Elizabeth, in summer-tide, writing of They had leased the piano nobile of the Palazzo Guidi for the first time just before going off to Vallombrosa and would eventually return there permamently. In Elizabeth's day this would have been the fresco of laurel garlands on the walls of the first room they would have entered, which they covered up with tapestries. It was rediscovered when I was Curator of 'Casa Guidi', as Elizabeth preferred to call the Palazzo, but the frescoes are now painted over again. Elizabeth and Robert would have walked the length of the terrace. Elizabeth especially delighted in the invention of the crinoline for its coolness. It was here that Elizabeth wrote Casa Guidi Windows, Part One in 1848, then Part Two in 1852, following the birth of her child. In Part One she describes Florence memorably: In Part One Elizabeth Barrett Browning first describes the Roman Republic of the Risorgimento's 1848 success, then in Part Two, its 1849 failure, with the death of Anita Garibaldi near Venice as the Republicans flee from the French, called in by the Pope against them, and of the Grand Duke's return to Florence with the Austrian soldiers marching past the Pitti Palace, seen from Casa Guidi Windows. She began Part One, echoing Robert Browning's Pippa's Song from Pippa Passes, with an Italian child singing 'O bella liberta`, O bella' beneath Casa Guidi Windows, by San Felice church, and gives, near the ending of Part Two, Meanwhile, in June in 1849 in Bagni di Lucca, where the Brownings, their maid and the new-born child had gone from the heat of Florence, Elizabeth one morning had shyly presented Robert with the note-book of sonnets she had been writing during their 1845-46 courtship. Robert wrote to Isa years later 'that was a strange heavy crown, that wreath of sonnets, put on me one morning unwares, three years after it had been twined . . . The publishing of them was through me'. But there was as yet no title. Elizabeth suggested that they be presented as translations, 'From the Bosnian'. Robert decided on `Sonnets from the Portuguese' because Elizabeth had earlier written 'Caterina to Camoens', as well as praising Camoëns in Lady Geraldine's Courtship, in the earlier poems celebrating the love of Portugal's epic poet and the dark eyes of his dying Caterina. They appeared amidst her 1850 Poems.

The drawing room, the salone, of Casa Guidi reflected the politics of the Risorgimento. Its walls were painted green. Its curtains were, Elizabeth wrote to her sisters, of white and red. Together they are the colours of the then illegal Italian flag. Where does Italy's flag come from? The Florentine intelligentsia of the nineteenth century Risorgimento did not in the least admire the Medici Princes and Hapsbourg-Lorraine Grand Dukes but looked to a more distant past, of the trecento Florentine Comune, its Republic, governed by the Priorate, among them having been the great poet, Dante Alighieri, and the Five Hundred. Dante, when he sees Beatrice in Purgatorio, has her garbed in the green of the olive, and in white and red. Princess Belgioioso would garb herself in green, white and red, chartering ships for Garibaldi's troops.

To this room Robert Browning brought Old Masters' paintings, picked up for a song in San Lorenzo. The Brownings were Pre-Raphaelite, preferring the Primitives to the later, more mannered Medicean styles. This Madonna is not really to their taste. This St Jerome is. The Pre-Raphaelite Movement in England clearly paralleled the Risorgimento in Italy, the exiled Rossetti family's father writing a commentary on Dante Alighieri's Commedia, and the son, named after Dante and Gabriel, commenting, like Ezra Pound, on trecento Italian poetry. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris were using models from the past for their present, culled from pre-Medicean Florence, from Ricardian London, from Arthurian Britain or from medieval Iceland, all of which were self-governing by means of Parliaments, Round Tables and Althings. Anna Jameson, like Ruskin, had already shaped Victorian taste in Italianate directions. Julia Margaret Cameron would photograph Madonnas and Children, as well as Robert Browning. Even the sepia photographs in the novels of Virginia Woolf are the fallout of the Italian Risorgimento influencing Victorian and Edwardian English art. The Brownings, like the Rossettis, are part of this diplomacy. But of the married pair, it is Elizabeth who thrills to the politics of her day of the Risorgimento, Robert rather damping her ardour.

In the cosmopolitan worlds of Florence, Siena and Rome the Brownings not only included English friends in their circle, but also American ones. Kate Field was a journalist for the Atlantic Monthly . Harriet Hosmer was a sculptress, like Hiram Powers. Margaret Fuller was the friend of Emerson and Thoreau, and had already with Hawthorne visited the Fourier Utopia of Brook Farm. Nathaniel Hawthorne would put Margaret Fuller into The Blithedale Romance as the drowned Zenobia. Fuller now came to Italy to cover the Risorgimento for the American Press - and fell in love with the Marchese Angelo Ossoli, bearing him a child they named Angelo Eugenio Filippo, nine months before the birth of Pen Browning, Elizabeth's child. Angelo was put out to nurse in the country and nearly died while his mother worked under Cristina Trivulzio, Princess Belgioioso, in the Roman hospitals during the French seige of the shortlived Roman Republic. At Rome's defeat the Ossolis came to Florence, Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Barrett Browning becoming friends after an initial disapproval, the two children drawing them together into as it were a Holy Family. Then the Ossolis set sail for America in a ship called the 'Elizabeth', the child Angelo drinking milk from goats's udders on ship board. On 1 June 1850, Elizabeth was proposed for Poet Laureate at Wordsworth's death. On 19 July, the ship 'Elizabeth' sank off Fire Island, the Ossolis drowning, the body of the child Angelo being found still warm on the shore. One reason for the shipwreck was the cargo of the `Elizabeth', of a colossal sculpture by Hiram Powers of the American Vice-President, then Senator, John C. Calhoun. Emerson sent Thoreau to search unsuccessfully for Margaret Fuller's manuscript of the History of the Roman Republic and to take care of the funerals. It was in this drawing room, the salone, of Casa Guidi, that Elizabeth Barrett Browning then began to write her epic poem, Aurora Leigh, stuffing its pages under her deck-chair when guests came to call. She had already written to Robert in 1845 of writing such a novel poem in the manner of Lady Geraldine's Courtship . Margaret's death in the ship 'Elizabeth', along with her child Angelo and the Marchese, seem to have them become as it were surrogates for Elizabeth and Pen and Bro, the second drowning cancelling out the first, and liberating Elizabeth to write, freeing her from guilt, giving her her Risorgimento.

Already Elizabeth, as a child at Hope End, had read Madame de Staël's novel, Corinne: ou Italie . de Staël's mother had been Suzanne Curchod, the mistress of the English historian Edward Gibbon. In her novel de Staëaut;l similarly has Corinne be the child of an English father and a Florentine mother. Corinne is a poetess, a Sibyl, who sings of Italy's desire for freedom and unity upon the Campidoglio in Rome, and is admired and wooed, then abandoned, by an English nobleman, and dies. Margaret Fuller, after the novel, was nicknamed 'New England's Corinne'. Elizabeth Barrett also loved George Sand's novels, and about these she and Robert quarrelled, for he despised 'women's books'. Nevertheless, later, she and Robert would visit George Sand in Paris. All these strands were now woven into Elizabeth Barrett Browning's epic. To write Aurora Leigh Elizabeth created composites, Romney Leigh her hero combining Robert Browning who scorned 'women's novels' and women's sonnets and ' lady's Greek, without the accents', with the socialist Richard Horne, the blind Hugh Boyd, and the ever-generous John Kenyon in whose house they stayed as he was dying and to whom Aurora Leigh is dedicated. While her two heroines, Aurora Leigh and Marian Erle, are modeled upon Margaret Fuller and herself. Marian's child furthermore combines Margaret's dead Angelo, Elizabeth's living Penini and even Lily Wilson's baby, Orestes. Elizabeth, in her fiction, placed her Casa Guidi interior not in Via Maggio but at Bellosguardo, where her friend Isa Blagden lived and where the Hawthornes stayed. Her poem's setting, like de Staël's novel, begins in Italy, then is set in England, then France, then returns to Italy. Elizabeth had already written of Michelangelo's Dusk and Aurora in Casa Guidi Windows, speaking of Michelangelo's own poem written for them to speak in 'marble scorn':

Elizabeth Barrett Browning now took that name, 'Aurora', as title for her epic/novel poem, Aurora Leigh and for its authorial heroine. The half Florentine, half English Aurora resembles Margaret Fuller Ossoli in having blonde hair and blue eyes. It is modeled on de Staël's Corinne. It is modeled too on George Sand's novels set in Paris and in the French countryside in its double plot concerning Marian Erle, the raped lower class child, befriended by Romney Leigh. (George Sand's real name was Aurore Dudevant). Marian Erle resembles Elizabeth Barrett Browning, having spaniel curls and ringlets and, like her, grows up in Malvern, and is also based on Elizabeth's own maid, Elizabeth/Lily Wilson. The character of Aurora evokes images from the Classics and from the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Corinne, who beat Pindar and won the laurel garland for her odes,

Cameo of Laurel-Wreathed Corinne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Tomb

or the Sibyl, or Aeschylus, or Miriam from Exodus, and even her High Priestly brother Aaron in his sky-blue robe embroidered with bells and pomegranates. Marian Erle, instead, is given the iconography of the Italian Primitives, being presented as a Madonna at the Annunciation with lilies at her feet.

Florentine Lilies, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Tomb

The epic novel poem begins with the line from Ecclesiastes 12.12, 'Of writing many books there is no end'. It is written in nine books, like the nine books the Sibyl wrote, and like Dante's nine, the vita nova, who is Beatrice, and like the nine months of a woman's pregnancy. It is several lines longer than Homer's Odyssey or Milton's Paradise Lost, yet all England read it and most praised the magnum opus. It has glorious lines:

The story is a simple one. Aurora, born in Florence to an English father and a Florentine mother, when orphaned is sent to England to be educated by a maiden aunt. Rather, she educates herself out of the crates of her father's books which she finds in the attic. Her cousin Romney proposes marriage to her on her twentieth birthday - on a June day just as she is crowning herself poet laureate. They argue about his socialism, based on the concepts of Charles Fourier, not Karl Marx, and her Greek and Hebrew. She rejects him, angering her aunt, and resolves to live by writing. In London seven years later and during the 1845-46 Potato Famine in Ireland she hears that Romney Leigh is about to marry the pauper Marian Erle, whom she goes to meet in a London slum. Marian has educated herself out of mutilated books from peddlars' packs, like a Thomson's Seasons, mulcted of its Spring. Marian is abducted before the wedding at St James, taken to France, raped and left pregnant. She gives birth to a child. Aurora packs up her books, speaking of contemporary poets, like Belmore (who is Tennyson) and his cedarn pencils fine, and Graham with his wife and child (the Brownings). Aurora finds Marian and her child in Paris. When Elizabeth wrote of that finding she filled the manuscript page with agitated images of drowning. Together Aurora and Marian speak of the sleeping child as an angel and a pomegranate and she takes them both with her to Florence, having them live at Bellosguardo. Romney comes to them, proposes to Marian who rejects him, and he continues his argument with Aurora, now praising her writing as much as he had slighted it nine years before. She does not at first realise he has become blind from an accident during the burning of Leigh Hall by the members of his socialist phalanstery whom he had lodged under his ancestral roof. He is presented as like Sophocles' blinded Oedipus, blind John Milton and Charlotte Brontë 's blinded Rochester. Together, with Florence at their feet, beneath the stars, which he cannot now see, Aurora and Romney Leigh recite the lines from Revelation concerning the Jubilee , the City of God , Correcting proofs and arranging Aurora Leigh's dual publication in England and America brought the Brownings to London. On 27 September 1855, Dante Gabriel Rossetti sketched Tennyson reading 'Maud' to Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a sketch Elizabeth placed alongside the engravings of Browning and Tennyson at Casa Guidi.

On their return Elizabeth and Robert grew apart. The great epic was now written and published and going into edition after edition. Sex was given up because Elizabeth had nearly died from miscarriages (she had had five pregnancies), while her tuberculosis, involving both spinal pain and diseased lungs, and her addiction to morphine to deaden that pain, worsened. One sees in her portraits how her head turns aside, as she had written to Robert in Sonnet XIX some years before, `through sorrow's trick'. Elizabeth became more deeply involved in Italian politics and in Swedenborgian spiritualism, both of which annoyed Robert, and he took to arguing about Pen's curls and feminine clothes and would go out with men friends, or spend hours sculpting. His study, where he sculpted rather than wrote, is almost at the opposite end of Casa Guidi as is Elizabeth's salone.

Elizabeth at this time dreamed of a figure in white, a woman who was Italy, whose face was veiled. Desperately concerned for the unification of Italy, which she died too soon to see, she now wrote topical political ballads, publishing these in 1860, as Poems before Congress. A late portrait by Michele Gordigiani shows her authorised stance, enthroned in state, but the pain and illness stamped indelibly upon her un-English face. She was, she herself confessed, not only of slave-owning stock but also partly of slave blood through the Moulton side of her family. It was at this time that Robert found 'The Old Yellow Book' in the San Lorenzo Market that would become The Ring and the Book . Elizabeth hated it, begging Robert not to be so obsessed with the 1698 legal documents of Guido Franceschini's trial for the murder of his wife Pompilia. A final cut had been Queen Victoria's command that Robert Browning meet with the Prince of Wales in Rome - but not Elizabeth. Queen Victoria never quite approved of Elizabeth Barrett's stance as epic and prophet poetess of freedom.

Elizabeth's last poem 'North and South' was written in praise of Hans Christian Andersen who visited them where they were staying in Rome and who recited 'The Ugly Duckling' while Robert performed for the assembled children, who included Pen, 'The Pied Piper of Hamelyn'. A final photograph, too horrible to show you, is of Elizabeth, Robert and Pen, taken in Rome, where Elizabeth looks like a cadavre, more dead than alive, though Pen at her side is clearly her rejuvenated and surrogate self. Robert and Elizabeth had been married for fourteen, at first glorious, then difficult, years. On 6 June 1861 Camille Cavour died, Italy except for the Papal States having become free and now being ruled by King Victor Emmanuel, Florence being her first capital. On 29 June Elizabeth died at Casa Guidi in their bedroom while Robert was attempting to feed her. These are the poets' clasped hands, from the line in Sonnet XXXVI, as sculpted by Harriet Hosmer.

Robert cut off Pen's curls in preparation for returning to England and commissioned George Mignaty to portray the green salone at Casa Guidi just as it had been when Elizabeth was still alive. Robert Browning never visited Florence again. But grateful Florence, newly the capital of a freed Italy, placed a stone upon Casa Guidi, declaring that Elizabeth Barrett Browning had made of her verse a golden ring wedding Italy and England. Robert took those lines for the opening of The Ring and the Book:

and its closing: Elizabeth and Robert had once gone secretly to see the presentation swords made for Victor Emanuel of Piedmont by the Castellani goldsmith brothers, one of whom, Alessandro, had been in the Castel Sant'Angelo, 1853-56, as a political prisoner of the Vatican States. The Castellani used jewelry politically, and did so sometimes by reviving the Etruscan past, which explains Robert's reference, 'By Castellani's imitative craft, Etrurian circlets'. Harriet Beecher Stowe also visited the Castellani brothers and on being shown an onyz statue of a black slave and told that 'Italy also is a slave', had stood before them in tears.

In 1889 the lionised Robert Browning died in his son's Venetian Palazzo Rezzonico and was buried in pomp in Westminster Abbey, there being no room for him in Florence's Protestant Cemetery where Elizabeth is interred in a tomb designed by Lord Leighton. Elizabeth, the poet of wedded love, deserves to be by her husband's side. 'Whom God hath joined, let no man put asunder'. She had deeply loved Westminster Abbey, writing about it first in her 1840 poem to Queen Victoria, 'Crowned and Wedded', then visiting it when she was strengthening herself for the elopement to Italy, speaking of it to Robert in a letter:

She is today a shadowy, dusty Poet Laureate, in deathly exile, denied a niche in the Poets' Corner, her marriage, as it were, sundered, even murdered. Yet there is proof of a divine spirit in her poems.

Besides her great learning, Elizabeth's poetry is of liberation, in which she is like Shelley and Byron. She, a crippled Victorian woman of five foot one, learned Greek and Hebrew as a child, through her poem 'The Cry of the Children' influenced child labour law in the House of Lords, then rose up from a death bed, married and bore a child, and wrote an epic. In her life and in her art she epitomised the Rinascimento from the tomb, the Risorgimento from the waves, Italy's artistic and political images based upon the Resurrection of Christ and Venus' Birth, Night and Day, Dusk and Aurora. She wrote of the freeing of nations: of Greece, of Italy, - of slaves: in Greece, in Russia, in America, in the West Indies, - of children: from labour in the mines and in factories, - and of women. But that last prophecy we, as women and men, still do not completely hear and her poems today - except for the sickroom Sonnets from the Portuguese - are unread in England, the land of her birth. She is, however, revered here in Italy where the Mignaty painting of the drawing room, the salone, of Casa Guidi appears in schoolchildren's text books and in adults' encyclopaedias illustrating an important part of Risorgimento history. She was to Italy what Byron had been to Greece. Should we not again honour this Anglo-Florentine ring of gold?

Forgive me if I urge you to read this Penguin Classic and others like it, such as Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book and Hawthorne's Marble Faun, which is a fiction about fact, about the Brownings and Isa Blagden and Margaret Fuller and Harriet Hosmer, and Henry James' Princess Casamassima, which undoes the Princess Belgioioso, and then to go even deeper, into the texts Elizabeth quarried for her poetry, Lord Byron's Don Juan, John Milton's Paradise Lost , Cervantes' Don Quixote, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and King Lear, Dante Alighieri's Commedia, Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy, Aeschylus' Oresteia, and even Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Penguin's paperbacks can give us in the twentieth century those same books as were once published by Aldine and Elzevir in hardback leather bindings which Elizabeth read long ago in her father's library at Hope End

Pen Browning

What became of Pen? Robert wanted him to be an English gentleman and to read Classics. But Elizabeth had wanted him to be cosmopolitan and study modern languages for diplomacy. His father tried to get him admitted to Balliol but Benjamin Jowett, who corresponded with Florence Nightingale, observed that Pen's mother had been a far greater classicist than was her son. Pen became an artist, studying sculpture under Rodin, and painting in Brittany, and he executed fine portraits of his father, Robert Browning, which capture years later the same stance Robert had had in Elizabeth's first glimpse of him, in the treasured engraving from Horne's A New Spirit of the Age.

A website http://www.uk1871census.com/case_study.htm shows what became of the household in 1871, Robert, 59, never visiting Florence or his wife's grave; Pen, 28 (sic), listed as an Oxford undergraduate, who would decidedly return to his beloved Italy, bringing his father and sister there, his father's sister Sarianne, 58, at this time living with them at 19, Warwick Crescent, the income for both Robert and Sarianne being given as from funds. They have three servants, a footman, a cook, a housemaid, living with them. Robert is listed as a widower, all the rest as unmarried.

Interestingly, another canvas Pen painted is a colossal head of St John the Baptist upon a charger, now in Texas. Recall that Pen's mother's name was Elizabeth, like that of St John the Baptist's, and that when Margaret Fuller and her child and Elizabeth and her child were together in Florence at the failure of the Roman Republic, they were iconographically a Holy Family, all of which was compounded and underlined by Margaret and Angelo's drowning in the ship called the `Elizabeth'. The Victorians dreamed themselves into medieval and Renaissance paintings.

Pen, while in Brittany, fathered an illegitimate child named Ginevra and he sculpted her as Pompilia from The Ring and the Book. She is Elizabeth's natural granddaughter. Pen returned to live in Italy and married American wealth but had no legitimate children, his wife leaving him and becoming a nun. He found the old family servants, Lily Wilson, Ferdinando and Annunziata, who had raised him, and looked after them. He made Asolo, of which his father had written in Pippa Passes, into an idyllic place and restored the Palazzo Rezzonico in Venice, which is where his father died in 1889. He carefully collected together not only his father's memorabilia, but also and especially those of his mother, bringing them to the Casa Guidi in the hopes that it would be a museum to his parents. Following Pen's death in 1912 these effects were sold at auction by Sotheby's and scattered hither and yon, most of the loot coming to the United States.

Lily Wilson

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning's day and in her circle were such women as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Hosmer, Harriet Martineau, Anna Jameson, Cristina Rossetti, Margaret Fuller, Isa Blagden, Princess Belgioioso, Theodosia Garrow Trollope, Jessie White Mario, Anita Garibaldi, and last but not least Elizabeth Wilson without whom Elizabeth could never have come to Italy nor borne the child Pen nor written Aurora Leigh. Some day I should like to write a book on them called Laurel Garland: Women of the Risorgimento, awarding a chapter, a laurel leaf, to each one. I suggested to Margaret Forster the writing of Lady's Maid, and now I wish I could rewrite that book and make it more poetical. Lily Wilson called her two sons, Orestes and Pylades, the classical pair whom Elizabeth, as Electra, had mentioned in her Sonnet V. Elizabeth was very jealous of Wilson and dismissed her from her service for her second pregnancy, the two sons having to be raised apart, one in England, one in Italy. When the brothers eventually met neither shared a language with the other. Like Walter Savage Landor and Marian Erle, Elizabeth Wilson, too, was capable of great madness, learning and poetry and did not just have the 'damp housemaid's soul' Forster gives her. Walter Savage Landor was her boarder at a time of his greatest dementia.


*Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. Ed. John Robert Glorney Bolton and Julia Bolton Holloway. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995. (ISBN 0-14-043412-7: http://www.penguinclassics.com ).

*Joseph Jay Deiss. The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller. New York, l969.

*Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Marble Faun. Penguin.

*Henry James. Princess Casamassima. Penguin.

____________. William Wetmore Story and his Friends from Letters, Diaries and Recollections.

*The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction with Other Memorabilia. Compiled, Philip Kelley and Betty A. Coley. Winfield, Kansas, 1984.

*Angela Leighton. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 1986.

*Jeanette Marks. The Family of the Barret: A Colonial Romance. New York, 1938.

*Ellen Moers. Literary Women: The Great Writers. Garden City, 1977.

*Geoffrey C. Munn. Castellani and Giuliano: Revivalist Jewelers of the 19th Century. New York, 1984.

*Giuliana Artom Treves. The Golden Ring: The Anglo-Florentines 1847-1862. Trans. Sylvia Sprigge. London, 1956.

*Maisie Ward. The Tragi-Comedy of Pen Browning. New York, 1972.

*Virginia Woolf. Aurora Leigh. The Second Common Reader.

*=books in Biblioteca e Bottega Fioretta Mazzei, libhe, English' Cemetery, Florence


Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. Edited, John Robert Glorney Bolton and Julia Bolton Holloway. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1995. xx + 517 pp. ISBN 0-14-043412-7.


Oh Bella Libertà! Le Poesie di Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A cura di Rita Severi e Julia Bolton Holloway. Firenze: Le Lettere, 2022. 290 pp.

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