Elizabeth Barrett Browning has been gone for more than 150 years, but her poetry and life story continue to inspire many today.
That was one of the main themes expressed by S. Michael Wilcox to a capacity crowd gathered in the Harris Fine Arts Center at Brigham Young University's Campus Education Week on Wednesday.
Wilcox, an author and retired Church Educational System instructor for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talked about the famous Victorian poet as part of his series on "Magnificent Humanity, Great Souls — Five People I Wish to Meet in the Hereafter."
"What an honor it will be to meet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and express my appreciation, particularly at this time in my life," Wilcox said. "It’s a hope-filled, love story."
For about the first 38 years of her life, Elizabeth's life was full of heartache and sadness. She lost her mother and a little sister when she was young. As a teenager, she suffered one miserable sickness after another. Her closest sibling, a brother she affectionately nicknamed "Bro," died in a sail boat accident.
After a horse-back riding accident around age 14, she became addicted to opium as a pain killer and formed a negative outlook on life. In addition to fragile health, her father forbid his children of ever getting married. Although Elizabeth gained popularity with her poetry, she became reclusive, lost hope of ever finding love, often remained in bed and rarely left her upstairs room.
"This was her life. She was afraid to be happy because she was worried it would be taken away," Wilcox said. "But she had a poet’s soul, and a capacity to love and be loved.”
As she approached her 40th birthday, she wrote a poem that changed her life. In a poem titled "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," she offered tribute to a budding poet named Robert Browning.
Browning responded with a heartfelt thank you.
“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” Browning wrote to Elizabeth in 1845.
During the next 20 months, the couple exchanged nearly 600 letters and developed a deep friendship. Browning wanted to meet her, but Elizabeth was afraid he would see her and want to end the relationship. She told him no, but he was persistent.
Finally, she invited Browning to come over one Tuesday when her father would not be home. "We’ll be friends until Tuesday," she said.
Wilcox said Browning picked flowers and came to the Barrett home. Elizabeth heard his footsteps on the stairs and feared his reaction upon seeing her. To her relief, they had a wonderful visit.
"After so much pain, suffering and being afraid of happiness, that first meeting became 'her great compensation day,'" Wilcox said.
Shortly thereafter, Browning wrote a letter asking Elizabeth to marry him, but she responded, "if you ever say marriage again, our friendship is over." He continued to visit and write to her, and with time, she began to live again. Around age 40, she started walking down the stairs by herself and went outside for the first time in years. She picked a flower and sent it in a letter to her Robert.
"Her confidence in his love developed, and she knew she would marry him, but dreaded her father. All he saw were two poets talking poetry, which is dangerous," Wilcox said. "Who would marry Elizabeth? But she was in love and love changes you."
Browning was patient and eventually the couple married secretly. Despite knowing her father would disown her, they left for a honeymoon. She left a note asking her father to forgive her, but they would never speak again. The Brownings settled in Florence, Italy, where they lived happily, traveled and wrote poetry.
"I am living as in a dream," Wilcox quoted Elizabeth, "like riding an enchanted horse."
She had two miscarriages, then gave birth to a healthy son she nicknamed "Pen." When Browning's mother died, he fell into depression. Elizabeth had kept his stack of letters and a collection of 44 sonnets in which she expressed her feelings for him, even though he didn't think it right for poets to express personal feelings in their work. It was her sonnets, later published as "Sonnets of the Portuguese," that pulled him out of his depression.
The Brownings' time together in Italy was rich and fulfilling, but eventually came to an end when Elizabeth died in 1861. Wilcox described the intimate final moments of her life when she said farewell to her faithful husband.
“My Robert, my heaven, my beloved, our lives are held by God, God bless you, God bless you, God bless you," Wilcox quoted Elizabeth. "It is beautiful."
Wilcox said Browning had the chance to remarry but didn't because, "My heart and soul is buried in Florence."
With women weeping and the sound of sniffles resonating around the auditorium, Wilcox recounted how his late wife, Laurie, introduced him to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry. "She became part of our relationship," he said.
Before Laurie died of cancer a few years ago, he whispered one of his favorite lines into her ear as she lay in a hospital bed.
"I love with the breath, smiles, tears of my life, — and, if God so choose I shall love thee better after death," he said.
Wilcox concluded by sharing several lessons he learned from Elizabeth's life and love story.
- "The greatest discovery is that the woman you love, loves you back.”
- "We never know what life will bring. The unexpected life can be great and bring unexpected blessings."
- "Elizabeth knew she was born for some great cause, that she had been sent to earth for some great purpose. She felt this in her heart."
- "Never doubt the possibility of footsteps on the stairs."
- "Live with gratitude and joy. We may yet have our great compensation date."
"May each of us love and be loved as Elizabeth and Robert," Wilcox said.
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