Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Ingram, 5th ed.)/Chapter 1
The Barretts were wealthy West Indian land-owners. Edward Barrett Moulton, a member of the family, assumed the additional surname of Barrett in accordance with his grandfather's will. Edward Moulton-Barrett, as he now styled himself, had not attained his majority when he married Mary, daughter of J. Graham Clarke, at that time residing at Fenham Hall, Newcastle-on-Tyne. Of Mrs. Moulton-Barrett our records are scanty; it is known that she was several years older than her husband and that, despite their disparity in age, she was tenderly loved by him.
In 1806 the Moulton-Barretts were residing at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, and there, on the 6th of March, the future poetess was born. Three days later she was privately baptized in the names of Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett.
Soon after the birth of their daughter the family removed to Hope End, near Ledbury, Herefordshire. Hope End, an estate recently acquired by Mr. Barrett, had previously been the country seat of Sir Henry Vane Tempest, and was not unnoted for the beauty of its situation. It was located in a retired valley, a few miles distant from the Malvern Hills, and the Rev. J. Barrett, in a description he gave of the place some years previous to the birth of Elizabeth, says: "It is nearly surrounded by small eminences, and therefore does not command any distant prospect, except to the southward, nor is that very extensive; but this defect is compensated by the various and beautiful scenery that immediately surrounds this secluded residence. In front of the house are some fine pieces of water; on their banks are planted a variety of shrubs and evergreens, which, in conjunction with the water, look very ornamental. The Deer Park," says the reverend gentleman in the pedantic phraseology of the period, "lies on the ascent of the contiguous eminences, whose projecting parts and bending declivities, modelled by nature, display much beauty. It contains an elegant profusion of wood, disposed in the most careless yet pleasing order. Much of the Park and its scenery is in view from the house, where it presents a very agreeable appearance."
The residence belonging to this charming estate was modern, and in keeping with the grounds; but it was not of sufficient grandeur to suit the semi-tropical tastes of its new proprietor. Mr. Barrett had the house pulled down and on its sight erected an oriental-looking structure, bedecked with "Turkish" windows and turrets.
A large family of sons and daughters sprang up rapidly around the wealthy West Indian, and the quaint residence and its pleasant environments re-echoed daily to the prattle of little tongues and the patter of little feet. Foremost of the band was Elizabeth. She was her father's favourite child, and he, who was proud of her intelligence, spared no pains to cultivate it. Although one of a large family, and presumably the sharer in the sports of her brothers and sisters, she appears to have been fond of solitude and solitary amusements. She was allowed a little room to herself, and thus describes it:—
As green as any privet-hedge a bird
Might choose to build in. . . .
Were green, the carpet was pure green, the straight
Small bed was curtained greenly, and the folds
Hung green about the window, which let in
The out-door world with all its greenery.
You could not push your head out and escape
A dash of dawn-dew from the honeysuckle.
A member of Mr. Barrett's family, who is said to remember Hope End as it was in those days, speaks of "Elizabeth's room" as a lofty chamber with a stained glass window casting lights across the floor, and upon little Elizabeth as she used to sit propped against the wall, with her hair falling all about her face, a child-like fairy figure. "Aurora Leigh's" recollections, however, are probably accurate, and it may be assumed that her record of childish rambles in the early summer mornings when she would—
As mute as any dream then, and escape
As a soul from the body, out of doors,
Glide through the shrubberies, drop into the lane
And wander on the hills an hour or two,
Then back again before the house should stir,—
faithfully represents little Elizabeth's own doings.
Of Hope End and the surrounding scenery "Aurora Leigh" furnishes many glimpses, but whether the heroine's father, "who was an austere Englishman" who taught his little daughter Latin and Greek himself, is intended for Mr. Barrett, is more than doubtful. Indulgent as her father was in some things, he was sternly despotic in others, and although, as she grew up, Elizabeth evidently revered him, it is certain that he would never allow himself to be thwarted. There is evidence that the gentle wife, who flits like a colourless spirit across the early life-track of her celebrated child, had often to soothe the anger of the wealthy West Indian slave-owner against his own offspring.
Although little Elizabeth found some things "as dull as grammar on an eve of holiday," as a rule she took more kindly to grammars than children of her age generally do. At nine—she herself is the authority—the only thing the mystic number nine suggested to the little girl was that the Greeks had spent nine years in besieging Ilium! Pity for her lost childhood's pleasures rather than admiration for her precocity would arise were it not palpable that infant necessity for play caused her to mingle frolic with her classical endowments. In the poem of "Hector in the Garden," Elizabeth Barrett tells that a device for amusement she invented when she was only nine years old was to cut out with a spade a huge giant of turf and, laying it down prostrate in the garden, style the creation of her childish fancy "Hector, son of Priam." Then, she says,—
Both his cheeks I weeded through.
Then she made her plaything—
Staring, winking at the skies:
Nose of gillyflowers and box;
Scented grasses put for locks,
Which a little breeze at pleasure
Set a waving round his eyes.
With a glitter toward the light;
Purple violets for the mouth,
Breathing perfumes west and south;
And a sword of flashing lilies,
Holden ready for the fight.
Closely fitting, leaf on leaf;
Drawn for belt about the waist;
While the brown bees, humming praises,
Shot their arrows round the chief.
Even at this tender age the little girl began to write verses, and dream of becoming a poet. "I wrote verses," she said, "as I daresay many have done who never wrote any poems, very early; at eight years old and earlier. . . . I could make you laugh by the narrative of nascent odes, epics, and didactics, crying aloud on obsolete Muses from childish lips. The Greeks were my demi-gods, and haunted me out of Pope's Homer, until I dreamt more of Agamemnon than of 'Moses,' the black pony."
The result of this was an "epic" on The Battle of Marathon. The composition was completed before its author was eleven, and Mr. Barrett was so proud of the production that he had fifty copies of it printed and distributed. The little booklet, consisting of seventy-two pages, was dedicated to her father, from "Hope End, 1819." The Battle of Marathon is divided into four books, and is truly described by its author as "Pope's Homer done over again, or rather undone; for, although a curious production for a child, it gives evidence only of an imitative faculty and an ear, and a good deal of reading in a peculiar direction."
"The love of Pope's Homer threw me into Pope on one side, and Greek on the other, and into Latin as a help to Greek," is her own record of this period of her life, contradicting the legend of her reading Homer in the original at eight years old. About the time of the grand epic, a cousin of Elizabeth was wont to pay visits to Hope End, where their grandmother, says Mrs. Ritchie, "would also come and stay. The old lady did not approve of these readings and writings, and used to say she would rather see Elizabeth's hemming more carefully finished off than hear of all this Greek."
Mr. Barrett evidently differed from the old lady in this respect, and encouraged his daughter both in her studies and her writings. In some of her earliest known verses, inscribed to him, Elizabeth says:—
My Father! rose my early lays!
And when the lyre was scarce awake,
I lov'd its strings for thy lov'd sake;
Woo'd the kind Muses—but the while
Thought only how to win thy smile—
My proudest fame—my dearest pride—
More dear than all the world beside!
Mrs. Barrett, who was still living when these lines were written, doubtless divided her affections more equally among her many little sons and daughters than did her husband; what with continuous ill-health and a constant succession of children, she had something else to think of than The Battle of Marathon, or "Hector, son of Priam." In those days it was the father's praise that sounded sweet to the little author's ears; in after life, when too late, a lost mother's love were more often the first thought of her verse.
The principal sharer of Elizabeth's childish amusements was her brother Edward. There was little more than a year's difference in age between them, and as he was, by all accounts, a suitable companion for her in both study and frolic, it was but natural that they should regard each other with intense affection. Alluding to the pet-name by which she was known in the family circle, she says:—
When we were children twain,
When names acquired baptismally
Were hard to utter, as to see
That life had any pain.
In her earliest volume of poems, published in 1826, Elizabeth included "Verses to my Brother," introduced by the quotation from Lycidas, "For we were nurs'd upon the self-same hill." She addressed him as "Belov'd and best . . . my Brother! dearest, kindest as thou art!" adding:—
Together sported childhood's spring away,
Together cull'd young Hope's fast budding flowers,
To wreathe the forehead of each coming day!
Together, many a minute did we wile
On Horace' page, or Maro's sweeter lore;
While one young critic, on the classic style,
Would sagely try to frown, and make the other smile.
Surrounded by happy children, companioned by a beloved brother, encouraged in her pursuits by a proud father, supplied by all that wealth could procure, it is easy to imagine that Elizabeth's early life was a happy one. Her greatest pleasure was, apparently, derived from reading. "I read," she said, "books bad and good," anything, in fact, in the shape of a book that could be got hold of.
Neither her indiscriminate and extensive reading nor her close application to study prevented her joining in pursuits suitable to her age and position. Riding and driving were among her amusements; and Mrs. Ritchie relates:—"One day, when Elizabeth was about fifteen, the young girl, impatient for her ride, tried to saddle her pony alone, in a field, and fell with the saddle upon her, in some way injuring her spine so seriously that she was for years upon her back."
That Elizabeth was an invalid for many years is certain, as it also is that to the end of her life she remained in delicate health; but, although she remarked that at fifteen she nearly died, she attributed the origin of her illness to a cough; "a common cough," she said, "striking on an insubstantial frame, began my bodily troubles." Be the cause of her delicacy what it may, confinement and ill-health only increased her passion for reading.
About this epoch in her life came to pass an event that must be regarded as one that influenced Elizabeth's future as largely as anything in her career. Her father obtained an introduction for her to the well-known Greek scholar, Hugh Stuart Boyd. Mr. Boyd, although blind, was a profound student of Hellenic literature and an accomplished author. Under his friendly tuition the eager girl drank deep draughts of Grecian lore, and acquired a knowledge of its less studied branches that stood her in good stead in after days. In her poem on "Wine of Cyprus," addressed by her to this dear friend, she proves, by the happiness of her allusions and the condensation of character, how thoroughly she had grasped the most salient features of Greek literature: her poem is at once a proof of her capacity to acquire, and her friend's to instruct. Some of the stanzas are charming reminiscences of these early days:—
Which my thought goes far to seek,
When, betwixt the folio's turnings,
Solemn flowed the rhythmic Greek.
Past the pane, the mountain spreading,
Swept the sheep-bell's tinkling noise,
While a girlish voice was reading—
Somewhat low for ai's and oi's!
While we sat together there;
How the white vests of the chorus
Seemed to wave us a live air!
How the cothurns trod majestic
Down the deep iambic lines;
And the rolling anapæstic
Curled like vapour over shrines!
Very gently, be it said,—
For our thoughts were disentangled
By no breaking of the thread!
And I charged you with extortions
On the noble fames of old—
Ay, and sometimes thought your Porsons
Stained the purple they would fold.
And more learned, and a man!—
Yet that shadow,—the enfolder
Of your quiet eyelids—ran
Both our spirits to one level;
And I turned from hill and lea
And tho summer-sun's green revel—
To your eyes that could not see!"
Elizabeth Barrett never forgot the advantages she had derived from the patient kindness and profound learning of the blind scholar, nor did he forego friendly correspondence with his apt and able pupil in after years. She deferred often to his opinion, despite her intense independence, and allowed his somewhat eccentric course of reading to influence her own studies. In later life she addressed three sonnets to this
Who never didst my heart or life misknow,
on "His Blindness," "His Death, 1848," and his "Legacies" to her, which last consisted of his
And Gregory Nazianzen, and a clock
Chiming the gradual hours out like a flock
Of stars, whose motion is melodious.
"The books," she says, "were those I used to read from," thus
The darkness of his eyes: now mine they mock,
Blinded in turn, by tears: now murmurous
Sad echoes of my young voice, years agone,
Entoning from these leaves, the Grecian phrase,
Return and choke my utterance.
"All this time," says Elizabeth, "we lived at Hope End, a few miles from Malvern, in a retirement scarcely broken to me except by books and my own thoughts, and it is a beautiful country, and was a retirement happy in many ways. . . . There I had my fits of Pope and Byron and Coleridge, and read Greek as hard under the trees as some of your Oxonians in the Bodleian; gathered visions from Plato and the dramatists, and eat and drank Greek and made my head ache with it."
The young girl by practice and increasing intensity of feeling was gradually learning to become a true poet. Most of the events of her life, she said, had passed in her thoughts, and these thoughts she had continuously striven to transmute into poesy. Many youths wrote verses, but with her, "what is less common," as she remarked, "the early fancy turned into a will, and remained with me, and from that day poetry has been a distinct object with me—an object to read, think, and live for."
Already as early as 1825, Elizabeth Barrett had contributed fugitive verses to literary publications of the day, but now her ambition prompted her to more daring flights. Her childish lines on The Battle of Marathon can scarcely be taken into account in any chronicle of her literary deeds, but a volume which she published anonymously in 1826 marks a distinct epoch in her career. It was entitled An Essay on Mind and Other Poems, and the leading piece, written in heroic verse, and extending to eighty-eight pages, is produced in view, not without some doubts as to its truth, of the utterly false dictum of Byron, that "ethical poetry is the highest of all poetry, as the highest of all earthly objects is moral truth."
The lines display no originality of thought, are in the see-saw style of the Pope school, and are not very wonderful even for a girl of seventeen, but the Essay is remarkable, as has been pointed out, "for the precocious audacity with which she deals with the greatest names in the whole range of literature and science. Gibbon, Berkeley, Condillac, Plato, Bacon, Bolingbroke, all come in for treatment in the scope of the young girl's argument."
Some of Elizabeth's words in her preface, needlessly long and wordy as it is, offer a much better specimen of her prose than does the Essay on Mind of her poesy, and, as the first known example of her unrhymed writings may be cited from. With youthful modesty she says: "I wish that the sublime circuit of intellect, embraced by the plan of my Poem, had fallen to the lot of a spirit more powerful than mine. I wish it had fallen to the lot of one more familiar with the dwelling-place of mind, who could search her secret chambers, and call forth those that sleep; or of one who could enter into her temples, and cast out the iniquitous who buy and sell, profaning the sanctuary of God; or of one who could try the golden links of that chain which hangs from Heaven to earth, and show that it is not placed there for man to covet for lucre's sake, or for him to weigh his puny strength at one end against Omnipotence at the other; but that it is placed there to join, in mysterious union, the natural and the spiritual, the mortal and the eternal, the creature and the Creator. I wish the subject of my poem had fallen into such hands that the powers of the execution might have equalled the vastness of the design—and the public will wish so too. But as it is—though I desire this field to be more meritoriously occupied by others, I would mitigate the voice of censure for myself. I would endeavour to show that while I may have often erred, I have not clung willingly to error; and that while I may have failed, in representing, I have never ceased to love Truth. If there be much to condemn in the following pages, let my narrow capacity, as opposed to the infinite object it would embrace, be generously considered; if there be anything to approve, I am ready to acknowledge the assistance which my illustrations have received from the exalting nature of their subject—as the waters of Halys acquire a peculiar taste from the soil over which they flow."
Besides the Essay on Mind, preface, analyses, and notes, the little book contained fourteen short pieces pretty equally divided between Byronic and domestic themes. Whilst none of these verses gave cause to believe in the advent of a great poetess, some of them, notably those beginning "Mine is a wayward lay," were skilfully handled and were not barren of felicitous turns of thought.
Reverting to the more personal history of the young poetess, we arrive at what may be deemed the first, and probably the greatest, real trouble she ever had to endure. For some time past Mrs. Barrett had had a continuance of ill-health, and eventually, on the 1st of October 1828, she died, at the comparatively early age of forty-eight. Elizabeth, herself an invalid, was left by her mother's death not only the chief consoler of her widowed father, but, to some extent, the guardian and guide of her seven brothers and sisters.
How Elizabeth managed to bear her grief, or what part she took in household affairs, are mysteries which have not been revealed, but she continued to seek consolation for human trouble, and an outlet for her ambition, for ambitious she was, in beloved Poesy. For a time, apparently, she was sent to France to pursue her studies, and contracted at least one strong friendship there, but neither her words nor works evince that any strong imprint was made on her mind by that stay on French soil.
Storm-clouds were gathering at home, and Elizabeth's influence was wanted to soothe, and her companionship to cheer, her father. As a West Indian proprietor, his chief wealth was, naturally, derived from slave labour. The voice of the British people had gradually been growing louder and stronger against slavery, and finally, guided by Wilberforce and his compatriots, demanded its abolition. Emancipation, after a long and weary fight, was at last obtained, and though still shackled by certain galling restrictions, the fiat went forth that, henceforth, unpaid compulsory labour should cease. Liberty for slaves in many instances meant ruin or, at the best, heavy pecuniary loss for their late owners. On Jamaica the blow fell with peculiar force, and the Barretts naturally felt the shock. Mr. Edward Moulton Barrett's fortune appears to have been very largely affected by Emancipation, and one of the chief results of his diminished income would appear to have been the relinquishment of the Hope End establishment.
The place where so many happy days had been spent, so many fond dreams born and nourished, so many loving ties formed, had to be left. "Do you know the Malvern Hills?—the hills of Piers Plowman's Visions?" wrote Elizabeth in later years; "they seem to me my native hills, for I was an infant when I went first into their neighbourhood, and lived there until I had passed twenty by several years. Beautiful, beautiful hills they are; and yet not for the whole world's beauty would I stand in the sunshine and shadow of them any more. It would be a mockery, like the taking back of a broken flower to its stalk."