Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The poet Robert Browning married the invalid poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1846 and they lived for most of their married life together in Florence in an apartment opposite the Pitti Palace in a building called Palazzo Guidi.  Elizabeth christened their apartment Casa Guidi.

Robert’s love affair with Italy was longer than his wife’s.  His first journey to Italy was in 1838.  and he was inspired by Italy’s history and artists in his poetry.  It was actually Elizabeth’s doctor who first suggested she be taken to Pisa during the English winter to enjoy the milder climate.  But it took their elopement to make that happen, because Elizabeth’s over-protective father did not give his permission for her to travel for her health, and to avoid his forbidding it, Elizabeth never asked his permission for her marriage to Robert.

Pisa lead to Florence, where they both fell in love with the town, and found many friends in the expatriate community for which Florence was, and still is, famous, and among the Florentines.  Her first visit to Florence prompted Elizabeth to write home on August 20, 1847:  “This Florence is unspeakably beautiful…”.  Their love a Florence persisted, and even if they did travel around much of central and northern Italy, and to England and France, they always returned to Florence. 

All of Italy fascinated Elizabeth.  In her poem “The North and the South” she explains the differences she saw between Northern Europe and Southern Europe, namely Italy.

Excerpt from The North and the South
(from May, 1861, written in Rome)

‘Now give us lands where the olives grow,‘
Cried the North to the South,
‘Where the sun with a golden mouth can blow
Blue bubbles of grapes down a vineyard-row!’
Cried the North to the South.

‘Now give us men from the sunless plain,’
Cried the South to the North,
‘By need of work in the snow and the rain,
Made strong, and brave by familiar pain!’
Cried the South to the North.... 

Elizabeth wrote a poem set in the Cascine, a large park in Florence, called “The Dance”.  It is about the Florentines expressing their gratitude to French soldiers who offered a reprieve from the repressive control of the Austrians.

Excerpt from The Dance

You remember down at Florence our Cascine,
Where the people on the feast-days walk and drive,
And, through the trees, long-drawn in many a green way,
O’er-roofing hum and murmur like a hive,
The river and the mountains look alive?...

Her 1851 poem “Casa Guidi Windows” describes in two parts Italy’s growing Risorgimento, unification movement, and it’s intensifying struggle for nationhood against the foreign powers who administered her fate and kept her looking like a jigsaw puzzle on the maps.

The poem made her an instant hero in Italy, but it was poorly received abroad, where commentators felt female poets should stick to love sonnets and eschew politics.  Only later, and mainly by female writers, was the poem’s beauty and passion appreciated.

In the poem, Elizabeth makes many references to Florence, and to Italy’s illustrious cultural and historical icons.  But it is often the first paragraph that catches people’s eye, ear and heart. The great political issue is introduced by a recounting of something she’s heard through the windows of Casa Guidi.  Later she recounts what she’s seen through the same windows, hence the title of the poem.

Excerpt from Casa Guidi Windows (from 1851)

I heard last night a little child go singing
‘Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,
O bella libertà, O bella! Stringing
The same words still on notes he went in search
So high for, you concluded the upspringing
Of such a nimble bird to sky from perch
Must leave the whole bush in a tremble green,
And that the heart of Italy must beat,
While such a voice had leave to rise serene
‘Twixt church and palace of a Florence street!
A little child, too, who not long had been
By mothers’s finger steadied on his feet,
And still O bella libertà he sang.... 

Elizabeth’s poor health worsened when she learned of Cavour’s death.  Cavour was the diplomat to Garibaldi’s soldier, and together they paved the way for Italian unification.  Elizabeth passed away in Florence, and while Robert left, heartbroken, with their son for England, never to return to Florence again, he did not lose his love of Italy.

Robert wrote after his wife’s death, when he was settled in England, “…How I yearn, yearn for Italy at the close of my life!…”  He was in the process of purchasing land in Venice when he passed away.  He died in Venice’s famous Ca’ Rezzonico, a palace on the grand canal, the home of his son and daughter-in-law.

A plaque was placed on the building:

A Roberto Browning, morto in questo palazzo, il 12 dicembre 1889, Venezia, pose.” 
(To Robert Browning, who died in this building, December 12, 1889, Venice, may he rest in peace.”  Two lines from one of his poems follows the dedication.)  
Open my heart and you will see, Graved inside of it, `Italy'.

To read these poems in full online, and to learn more about the Brownings and their son, visit my Brownings page at (Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site), my Italian culture website.

Or you can download the free e-book in various e-book format from the Internet Archive, a rich source of scanned books.

Here are three collections of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's complete works available via

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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