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Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

Work and Contemplation

The woman singeth at her spinning-wheel
A pleasant chant, ballad or barcarole;
She thinketh of her song, upon the whole,
Far more than of her flax; and yet the reel
Is full, and artfully her fingers feel
With quick adjustment, provident control,
The lines—too subtly twisted to unroll—
Out to a perfect thread. I hence appeal
To the dear Christian Church--that we may do
Our Father's business in these temples mirk,
Thus swift and steadfast, thus intent and strong;
While thus, apart from toil, our souls pursue
Some high calm spheric tune, and prove our work
The better for the sweetness of our song.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the oldest of twelve children and the first person in her family for two hundred years to be born in England (her family had lived in Jamaica where they owned sugar plantations). An enthusiastic Christian believer, as a teenager Browning taught herself Hebrew to read the Old Testament in its original language, and later studied Greek. By age fifteen she had suffered a chronic lung ailment and a spinal injury from a horsing accident that virtually incapacitated her for the rest of her life. When her brother drowned she withdrew and became a near recluse. Her father bitterly opposed her romance with Robert Browning, who was six years younger than her, and with whom she exchanged nearly six hundred letters in less than two years. In 1846 they eloped to Florence, Italy, where she died some fifteeen years later.

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