Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)
If all the gentlest-hearted friends I know
Concentred in one heart their gentleness,
That still grew gentler till its pulse was less
For life than pity,—I should yet be slow
To bring my own heart nakedly below
The palm of such a friend, that he should press
Motive, condition, means, appliances,
My false ideal joy and fickle woe,
Out full to light and knowledge; I should fear
Some plait between the brows, some rougher chime
In the free voice. O angels, let your flood
Of bitter scorn dash on me ! do ye hear
What I say who hear calmly all the time
This everlasting face to face with GOD ?
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.