I can't pinpoint when I first read poems by Elizabeth Barratt Browning but I'm certain she was one of the first major poets I read with pleasure. Like many, my favorites comes from her best known collection, Sonnets From The Portuguese. My favorite is the 43rd Sonnet, the one that begins with the lines, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."

I can't pinpoint when I first read poems by Elizabeth Barratt Browning but I'm certain she was one of the first major poets I read with pleasure. Like many, my favorites comes from her best known collection, Sonnets From The Portuguese. My favorite is the 43rd Sonnet, the one that begins with the lines, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."
At the time I first read those lines, I was too young for any actual romance but I was always a dreamer. As a little girl, I acted out a wedding almost every Sunday with my cousins, willing or not, and sometimes pretended the very small bathroom in my grandmother's home was a tower. I, of course, was the princess locked there, Rapunzel style. Since I had a romantic streak, Browning's poetry made me sigh with pleasure.
One of those high school lit books included a play by Rudolph Besier, 'The Barratts of Wimpole Street' that was based on the romance between Elizabeth Barratt and the poet Robert Browning. The play dates to 1930 and there were several movies based on the play.
That's where I learned the story behind the poems.
Elizabeth Barratt Browning was the oldest of twelve children, born March 6, 1806 in England. Although during her childhood, she enjoyed horseback riding and outdoor activities with her siblings, she preferred reading most of all.
At the age of fourteen, a lung illness limited her activities and eroded her health. The next year, she suffered a spinal injury after a fall from a horse. For the rest of her life, Barratt Browning suffered from pains in both head a spine. She treated both with laudanum, a common pain reliever in the period that included both morphine and opium.
She became an invalid and was often reclusive although she wrote her poetry, finding publication at an early age.
A collection of her work titled simply 'Poems' caught the interest of another poet, Robert Browning. The couple began a long correspondence, consisting of 600 letters over a 20-month period, that became a courtship. After Browning came to call on Elizabeth at the Barratts Wimpole Street home in London, their relationship led to an elopement. Elizabeth's father had been against the marriage and once she wed, he disowned her as he had each of his children who married.
The poems that appeared in 1850 in her 'Sonnets From the Portuguese' were written primarily during her courtship with Browning.
During her lifetime, Barratt Browning was a well-known and popular poet both in the United Kingdom and the United States.
After her marriage, the couple moved to Italy where they lived for the rest of Elizabeth's life.
They had one son, nicknamed 'Pen', who had no legitimate children.
She died in 1861 after decades of ill health. She may have suffered from tuberculosis but if the legend is true, she died in her husband's arms and her last word was "beautiful".
Her poetry became classics for romantic hearted readers and are still used as vows in some weddings.
Robert Browning wrote poetry as well but during their lifetime, he was better known as Elizabeth Barratt Browning's husband than as a poet.
He was six years younger than his wife and he lived for twenty-eight years after her death. Today, on the anniversary of Elizabeth Barratt Browning's birth it seems somehow right to close with the last lines of her 43rd Sonnet, "I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears of all my life and if, God choose, I shall but love thee better after death."


Lee Ann Murphy is a staff writer and writes a column for the Neosho Daily News.