Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born on the 6th of March in 1806, and in honor of her birthday, our homeschool poem-of-the-week for the beginning of March is an excerpt from the her long verse-novel Aurora Leigh (1856), an immensely popular work of the Victorian Era, especially among young women:
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!
At last, because the time was ripe,
I chanced upon the poets.
As the earth
Plunges in fury, when the internal fires
Have reached and pricked her heart, and, throwing flat
The marts and temples, the triumphal gates
And towers of observation, clears herself
To elemental freedom — thus, my soul,
At poetry’s divine first finger touch,
Let go conventions and sprang up surprised,
Convicted of the great eternities
Before two worlds.
Browning and her poet-husband Robert Browning (1812–1889) were both widely acclaimed in their day and continue to be widely read. Young Elizabeth was a remarkable 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.“ (poetryfoundation.org)
Here’s a fine BBC Radio panel discussion (suitable 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. (One character is forced to work in a brothel where she becomes pregnant.) Browning herself joked that mothers all forbid their daughters to read her work, and the daughters all read it anyway:
And here’s a complete eBook edition of Aurora Leigh prepared by the University of Adelaide in Australia, available in Kindle and HTML formats:
- ➤ Aurora Leigh, eBook Edition (University of Adelaide)
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 this week? 😊
❡ Books, books, books! If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship and learn a few lovely words that will stay with you for life. 😊
❡ Explore more: For a quick review of the Victorian Era in history and literature, turn to page 348 in your River Houses history encyclopedia (riverhouses.org/books).
❡ Explore more: The Poetry Foundation’s website includes biographical notes and examples of the work of many important poets (including Elizabeth Barrett Browning) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers.
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Print your own River Houses poetry calendar (riverhouses.org/calendars) and follow along with us as we visit forty-eight of our favorite friends.