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1806-1832

“Here’s the garden she walked across.

Roses ranged in a valiant row, I will never think she passed you by!”

Childhood and early youth of Elizabeth Barrett hope end “Summer snow of apple-blossoms” Her bower of white roses “Living with visions” The Malvern hills Hugh Stuart Boyd love of learning “Juvenilia” Impassioned devotion to poetry.

The literature of childhood presents nothing more beautiful than the records of the early years of Elizabeth Barrett. Fragmentary though they be, yet, gathered here and there, they fall into a certain consecutive unity, from which one may construct a mosaic-like picture of the daily life of the little girl who was born on March 6, 1806, in Coxhoe Hall, Durham, whence the family soon removed to Hope End, a home of stately beauty and modest luxury. There were brothers to the number of eight; and two sisters, Henrietta and Arabel, all younger than herself. Edward, the eldest son, especially cared for Elizabeth, holding her in tender and almost reverential love, and divining, almost from his infancy, her exquisite gifts. Apparently, the eldest sister was also greatly beloved by the whole troop of the younger brothers, Charles, Samuel, George, Henry, Alfred, and the two younger, who were named Septimus and Octavius.

With three daughters and eight sons, the household did not lack in merriment and overflowing life; and while the little Elizabeth was born to love books and dreams, and assimilated learning as naturally as she played with her dolls, she was no prodigy, set apart because of fantastic qualities, but an eager, earnest little maid, who, although she read Homer at eight years of age, yet read him with her doll clasped closely in one hand, and who wrote her childish rhymes as unconsciously as a bird sings. It is a curious coincidence that this love of the Greeks, as to history, literature, and mythology, characterized the earliest childhood of both Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Pope’s Homer was the childish favorite of each. “The Greeks were my demigods,” she herself said, in later life, of her early years, “and haunted me out of Pope’s Homer, until I dreamt more of Agamemnon than of Moses the black pony.”

The house at Hope End has been described by Lady Carmichael as “a luxurious home standing in a lovely park, among trees and sloping hills,” and the earliest account that has been preserved of the little girl reveals her sitting on a hassock, propped against the wall, in a lofty room called “Elizabeth’s chamber,” with a stained glass oriel window through which golden gleams of light fell, lingering on the long curls that drooped over her face as she sat absorbed in a book. She was also an eager worker in her garden, the children all being given a plot to cultivate for themselves, and Elizabeth won special fame for her bower of white roses.

There are few data about the parents of Elizabeth Barrett, and the legal name, Moulton-Barrett, by which she signed her marriage register and by which her father is commonly known, has been a source of some confused statements. Her father, Edward Barrett Moulton, came into an inheritance of property by which he was required to add the name of Barrett again, hyphenating it, and was thus known as Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett. He married Mary Graham Clarke, a native of Newcastle-on-the-Tyne, a woman of gentle loveliness, who died on October 1, 1828. Mr. Moulton-Barrett lived until 1860, his death occurring only a year before that of his famous daughter, who was christened Elizabeth Barrett Moulton, and who thus became, after her father’s added name, Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett, although, except when a legal signature was necessary, she signed her name as Elizabeth Barrett. The family are still known by the hyphenated name; and Mrs. Browning’s namesake niece, a very scholarly and charming young woman, now living in Rome, is known as Elizabeth Moulton-Barrett. She is the daughter of Mrs. Browning’s youngest brother, Alfred, and her mother, who is still living, is the original of Mrs. Browning’s poem, “A Portrait.” While Miss Moulton-Barrett never saw her aunt (having been born after her death), she is said to resemble Mrs. Browning both in temperament and character. By a curious coincidence the Barrett family, like the Brownings, had been for generations the owners of estates in the West Indies, and it is said that Elizabeth Barrett was the first child of their family to be born in England for more than a hundred years.

Her father, though born in Jamaica, was brought to England as a young child, and he was the ward of Chief Baron Lord Abinger. He was sent to Harrow, and afterwards to Cambridge, but he did not wait to finish his university course, and married when young. One of his sisters was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and this portrait is now in the possession of Octavius Moulton-Barrett, Esq., of the Isle of Wight.

Elizabeth’s brother Edward was but two years her junior. It was he who was drowned at Torquay, almost before her eyes, and who is commemorated in her “De Profundis.” Of the other brothers only three lived to manhood. When Elizabeth was three years of age, the family removed to Hope End in Herefordshire, a spacious and stately house with domes and minarets embowered in a grove of ancient oaks. It was a place calculated to appeal to the imagination of a child, and in later years she wrote of it:

“Green the land is where my daily Steps in jocund childhood played, Dimpled close with hill and valley, Dappled very close with shade, Summer-snow of apple-blossoms, Running up from glade to glade.”

Here all her girlhood was passed, and it was in the garden of Hope End that she stood, holding up an apron filled with flowers, when that lovely picture was painted representing her as a little girl of nine or ten years of age. Much of rather apochryphal myth and error has grown up about Mrs. Browning’s early life. However gifted, she was in no wise abnormal, and she galloped on Moses, her black pony, through the Herefordshire lanes, and offered pagan sacrifices to some imaginary Athene, “with a bundle of sticks from the kitchen fire and a match begged from an indulgent housemaid.” In a letter to Richard Hengist Home, under date of October 5, 1843, in reply to a request of his for data for a biographical sketch of her for “The New Spirit of the Age,” she wrote:

“... And then as to stories, mine amounts to the knife-grinder’s, with nothing at all for a catastrophe. A bird in a cage would have as good a story. Most of my events, and nearly all my intense pleasures, have passed in my thoughts. I wrote verses as I dare say many have done who never wrote any poems very early, at eight years of age, and earlier. But, what is less common, the early fancy turned into a will, and remained with me, and from that day to this, poetry has been a distinct object with me, an object to read, think, and live for.”

When she was eleven or twelve, she amused herself by writing a great epic in four books, called “The Battle of Marathon,” which possessed her fancy. Her father took great pride in this, and, “bent upon spoiling me,” she laughingly said in later years, had fifty copies of this childish achievement printed, and there is one in the British Museum library to-day. No creator of prose romance could invent more curious coincidences than those of the similar trend of fancy that is seen between the childhood of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Her “Battle of Marathon” revealed how the Greek stories enchanted her fancy, and how sensitive was her ear in the imitation of the rhythm caught from Pope. This led her to the delighted study of Greek, that she might read its records at first hand; and Greek drew her into Latin, and from this atmosphere of classic lore, which, after all, is just as interesting to the average child as is the (too usual) juvenile pabulum, she drew her interest in thought and dream. The idyllic solitude in which she lived fostered all these mental excursions. “I had my fits of Pope and Byron and Coleridge,” she has related, “and read Greek as hard under the trees as some of your Oxonians in the Bodleian; gathered visions from Plato and the dramatists, and ate and drank Greek.... Do you know the Malvern Hills? The Hills of Piers Plowman’s Visions? They seem to me my native hills. Beautiful, beautiful they were, and I lived among them till I had passed twenty by several years.”

Mr. Moulton-Barrett was one of the earliest of social reformers. So much has been said, and, alas! with too much justice, it must be conceded, of his eccentric tyranny, his monomania, for it amounted to that, in relation to the marriage of any of his children regarding which his refusal was insanely irrational, that it is pleasant to study him for a moment in his more normal life. In Ledbury, the nearest village, he would hold meetings for the untaught people, read and pray with them, and this at a period when for a man of wealth to concern himself in social betterment was almost unknown. He was truly “the friend of the unfriended poor,” and by his side, with wondering, upturned, childish eyes, was the little Elizabeth, an ardent and sympathetic companion. Until quite recently there were still living those who remembered Mr. Barrett as this intelligent and active helper; and in the parish church is a monument to him, by the side of a gloriously decorated tomb of the fourteenth century, with an inscription to his memory that vividly recalls the work of one who strove to revive the simple faith in God that has always, in all nations and in all centuries, met every real need of life.

Mrs. Barrett, a sweet and gentle woman, without special force of character, died when Elizabeth was but twenty years of age; and it was some five years before her mother’s death that Elizabeth met with the accident, from the fall from her saddle when trying to mount her pony, that caused her life-long delicacy of health. Her natural buoyancy of spirits, however, never failed, and she was endowed with a certain resistless energy which is quite at variance with the legendary traditions that she was a nervous invalid.

Hardly less than Browning in his earliest youth, was Elizabeth Barrett “full of an intensest life.” Her Italian master one day told her that there was an unpronounceable English word that expressed her exactly, but which, as he could not give in English, he would express in his own tongue, testa lunga. Relating this to Mr. Browning in one of her letters, she says: “Of course the signor meant headlong! and now I have had enough to tame me, and might be expected to stand still in my stall. But you see I do not. Headlong I was at first, and headlong I continue, precipitately rushing forward through all manner of nettles and briers instead of keeping the path; guessing at the meaning of unknown words instead of looking into the dictionary, tearing open letters, and never untying a string, and expecting everything to be done in a minute, and the thunder to be as quick as the lightning.”

Impetuous, vivacious, with an inimitable sense of humor, full of impassioned vitality, this was the real Elizabeth Barrett, whose characteristics were in no wise changed during her entire life. Always was she

“A creature of impetuous breath,”

full of vivacious surprises, and witty repartee.

Hope End was in the near vicinity of Eastnor Castle, a country seat of the Somersets; it is to-day one of the present homes of Lady Henry Somerset, and there are family records of long, sunny days that the young girl-poet passed at the castle, walking on the terraces that lead down to the still water, or lying idly in the boat as the ripples of the little lake lapped against the reeds and rushes that grew on the banks. In the castle library is preserved to-day an autograph copy of the first volume of Elizabeth Barrett’s poems, published when she was twenty, and containing that didactic “Essay on Mind” written when she was but seventeen, and of which she afterward said that it had “a pertness and a pedantry which did not even then belong to the character of the author,” and which she regretted, she went on to say, “even more than the literary defectiveness.” This volume was presented by her to a member of the Somerset family whose name is inscribed over that of her own signature.

During these years Hugh Stuart Boyd, the blind scholar, was living in Great Malvern, and one of Miss Barrett’s greatest pleasures was to visit and read Greek with him. He was never her “tutor,” in the literal sense, as has so widely been asserted, for her study of Greek was made with her brother Edward, under his tutor, a Mr. MacSweeney; but she read and talked of Greek literature (especially of the Christian poets) with him, and she loved to record her indebtedness to him “for many happy hours.” She wrote of him as one “enthusiastic for the good and the beautiful, and one of the most simple and upright of human beings.” The memory of her discussions with him is embalmed in her poem, “Wine of Cyprus,” which was addressed to him:

“And I think of those long mornings Which my thought goes far to seek, When, betwixt the folio’s turnings, Solemn flowed the rhythmic Greek.”

Elizabeth Barrett was more than a student, however scholarly, of Greek. She had a temperamental affinity for the Greek poets, and such translations as hers of “Prometheus Bound” and Bion’s “Lament for Adonis,” identify her with the very life itself of Aeschylus and Bion. In her essay on “The Greek Christian Poets” we find her saying: “We want the touch of Christ’s hand upon our literature, as it touched other dead things ... Something of a yearning after this may be seen among the Greek Christian poets,... religious poets of whom the universal church and the world’s literature would gladly embrace more names than can be counted to either.”

All her work of these early years is in that same delicate microscopic handwriting of her later life. She laughingly professed a theory that “an immense amount of physical energy must go to the making of those immense, sweeping hand-writings achieved by some persons.” She instanced that of Landor, “who writes as if he had the sky for a copy-book and dotted his i’s in proportion.”

Poetry as a serious art was the most earnest object in the life of Elizabeth Barrett. To her poetry meant “life in life.”

“Art’s a service, mark.”

The poetic vocation could hardly be said to be so much a conscious and definite choice with her as a predetermined destiny, and still it was both. The possibility of not being a poet could never have occurred to her. There could have been as little question of Beethoven’s being other than a musician or of Raphael as being other than a painter. In poetry Elizabeth Barrett recognized the most potent form of service; and she held that poetic art existed for the sake of human co-operation with the Divine purposes.

The opening chapters of her life in the lovely seclusion of Hope End closed in 1832 with the removal of the family to Sidmouth in Devonshire. Here they were bestowed in a house which had been occupied by the Grand Duchess Helena. It commanded a splendid sea view, on which four drawing-room windows looked out, and there were green hills and trees behind. They met a few friends, Sir John Kean, the Herrings, and the town abounded in green lanes, “some of them quite black with foliage, where it is twilight in the middle of the day, and others letting in beautiful glimpses of the hills and the sunny sea.” Henrietta Barrett took long walks, Elizabeth accompanying her sister, mounted on her donkey. The brothers and sisters were all fond of boating and passed much time on the water. They would row as far as Dawlish, ten miles distant, and back; and after the five o’clock dinner there were not infrequently moonlight excursions on the sea. During these first months at Sidmouth Miss Barrett read Bulwer’s novels, which she asserts “quite delighted” her; as she found in them “all the dramatic talent which Scott has, and all the passion which he has not.” Bulwer seemed to her, also, “a far more profound discriminator of character” than Scott. She read Mrs. Trollope, “that maker of books,” whose work she characterized as not novels but “libels.” She found in Mrs. Trollope “neither the delicacy nor the candor which constitute true nobility of mind,” and thought that her talent formed but “a scanty veil to shadow her other defects.”

Miss Barrett grew to love Sidmouth, with its walks on the seashore; and letters, reading, poetic production, and family interests filled the time. Here, too, she found time to enter on a task dear to her, the translation of the “Prometheus Bound” of Aeschylus.

Some years later, however, she entirely revised this early translation, of which she wrote to Hugh Stuart Boyd that it was “as cold as Caucasus, and flat as the neighboring plain,” and that “a palinodia, a recantation,” was necessary to her. In her preface to the later translation she begged that her reader would forgive her English for not being Greek, and herself for not being Aeschylus.