It’s language and literature day in the River Houses, a.k.a. Wonderful Words Wednesday. Since yesterday was the birthday of the great Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861), why not spend a few homeschool minutes this week introducing your students to her name and her work. There’s a fine biography (suitable for high-school level readers) available on the Poetry Foundation’s website:
Among all women poets of the English-speaking world in the nineteenth century, none was held in higher critical esteem or was more admired for the independence and courage of her views than Elizabeth Barrett Browning. During the years of her marriage to Robert Browning, her literary reputation far surpassed that of her poet-husband; when visitors came to their home in Florence, she was invariably the greater attraction. (poetryfoundation.org/poets/elizabeth-barrett-browning)
Young Elizabeth was quite a prodigy—”gifted,” we would say today:
Before Barrett was ten years old, she had read the histories of England, Greece, and Rome; several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Othello and The Tempest; portions of Pope’s Homeric translations; and passages from Paradise Lost. At eleven, she says in an autobiographical sketch written when she was fourteen, she “felt the most ardent desire to understand the learned languages.” …. Within the next few years she went through the works of the principal Greek and Latin authors, the Greek Christian fathers, several plays by Racine and Molière, and a portion of Dante’s Inferno—all in the original languages. Also around this time she learned enough Hebrew to read the Old Testament from beginning to end. Her enthusiasm for the works of Tom Paine, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Mary Wollstonecraft presaged the concern for human rights that she was later to express in her poems and letters.
Many a young woman, over the past century and a half, has been captivated by Browning’s long verse-novel Aurora Leigh (1857). It was a favorite of Emily Dickinson, and it’s not hard to see why:
Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine,—
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.
And what book-loving student could fail to take delight in Aurora’s (almost Harry-Potter-esque) discovery of a vast cache of her father’s books:
Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret-room
Piled high with cases in my father’s name;
Piled high, packed large,—where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
The first book first. And how I felt it beat
Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,
An hour before the sun would let me read!
Here’s a fine BBC Radio panel discussion (suitable also for high-school level English students) that reviews Browning and Aurora Leigh in detail, including some of its adult themes, which are mild perhaps by today’s standards, but which were somewhat scandalous when the work was published in the nineteenth century. Browning herself joked that mothers all forbid their daughters to read her work, and the daughters all read it anyway:
The comprehensive Elizabeth Barrett Browning Archive is also an excellent place to explore, and it includes annotated teaching texts of many of Browning’s poems:
If you have a homeschool student with a strong interest in books and literature, introduce her to “Mrs. Browning” (as the Victorians always called her), and she’ll have a friend for life.
What wonderful words have you found and what literary discoveries have you made in your homeschool lately?
❡ Explore more: The website of the Poetry Foundation (poetryfoundation.org) includes biographies and examples of the work of many major poets, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers.