E lizabeth Barrett Browning is the greatest "woman poet" England has ever had. Though some of her poetry is difficult to understand, owing to her depth of thought and great reading, yet many of her prettiest and most touching poems have been written about little children; she with her pitiful heart felt for the sorrows they could not express, and has told us about them; she has told us about little Lily, who died when she was "no taller than the flowers," of the little factory children, who only cried in their playtime, and only cared for the fields and meadows just to "drop down in them and sleep," of little Ellie sitting alone by the stream dipping her feet into the clear cool water and dreaming the hours away.
Elizabeth Barrett always looked on Malvern as her native place, though she was not actually born there, but in Durham, in 1809. The early years of her life seem to have been very happy; we hear of her as a little girl with clusters of golden curls, large tender eyes, and a sweet smile. She herself has not told us much about her early years, but the glimpses she has given us are very bright. Her father had a country house near Malvern, and over the Malvern Hills the child loved to roam. She liked to be out all day with the flowers and the bees and the sun.
"If the rain fell, there was sorrow," she says, and she laid her curly head against the window, while her little finger followed the "long, trailing drops" down the pane, and, like other children, she would gently sing," Rain, rain, come to-morrow," to try and drive it away. When she went out, it was not along the sheep paths over the hills that she cared to go, but to wander into the little woods, where the sheep could not stray. Now and then, she tells us, one of them would venture in, but its wool caught in the thickets, and with a "silly thorn-pricked nose" it would bleat back into the sun, while the little poet-girl went on, tearing aside the prickly branches with her struggling fingers, and tripping up over the brambles which lay across her way.
At eight years old and earlier she began to write little verses, and at eleven she wrote a long "epic" poem in four books called the "Battle of Marathon," of which fifty copies were printed, because, she tells us, her father was bent on spoiling her. She spent most of her time reading Greek, either alone or with her brother; she so loved the old Greek heroes, and would dream about them at night; she loved the old Greek stories, she "ate and drank Greek," and her poetry is mixed with Greek ideas and thoughts and names, even from a child.
She had one favourite brother; with him she read, with him she talked; they understood one another, and entered into one another's thoughts and fancies. He called her by a pet name, when they were little children together, because the name Elizabeth seemed so "hard to utter," and "he calls me by it still," she adds pathetically in later life, when that life was no longer all sunshine and laughter, and when the brother had been taken from her. But these were happy days, these days of childhood, never forgotten by Elizabeth Barrett, who looked back to them afterwards, and remembered how she sat at her father's knee, and how lovingly he would look down at the little poet and reward her with kisses.
When she was older the family moved to London, and there Elizabeth Barrett became very ill. She had always been fragile and delicate, and now she was obliged to lie all day in one room in the London house. When she grew a little stronger, and the cold weather was coming on, the doctor ordered a milder climate, and she was moved to Torquay, her favourite brother going with her. She had been there a year, and the mild sea breezes of Devonshire had done her good, when fresh trouble came to her.
One fine summer morning her brother with a few friends started in a little sailing-vessel for a few hours' trip. They were all good sailors, and knowing the coast well, they sent back the boatmen, and undertook the management of the boat themselves. The idea of danger never seems to have occurred to them. They had not got far out, when suddenly, just as they were crossing the bar, in sight of the very windows, the boat went down, and the little crew perished—among them Elizabeth Barrett's favourite brother. He was drowned before her very eyes, and, already ill and weak, she nearly sank under the weight of the blow.
The house she lived in at Torquay was at the bottom of the cliffs close to the sea, but now the sound of the waves no longer soothed her; they sounded like moanings from the sea. She struggled back to life, but all was changed for her. Still she clung to Greek and literature, and she would pore over her books till the doctor would remonstrate, and urge some lighter reading. He did not know that her books were no hard study to her; reading was no exertion, but a delight and comfort to her, changing the current of her thoughts from the sad past, and helping her to wile away the long hours of sickness. However, to make others happy about her, she had her little edition of Plato bound so that it looked like a novel, and then she could read it without being disturbed or interfered with at all.
She tried to forget her ill health and weariness, and some of her letters at this time were so bright and amusing, that we see how well she succeeded in throwing herself into the lives of those around her. At last she was well enough to be moved in an invalid carriage with "a thousand springs" to London, in short journeys of twenty miles a day. There for seven long years she lived in one large, but partly darkened room, seeing only her own family and a few special friends.
Her poems were sad, beautiful, and very tender; never once does she allude in words to the terrible blow which had swept so much sunshine and happiness from her young life, but her writings are full now of wild utterances and passionate cries, now calming down into sleepy lullabies for the little children she had such sympathy with. She did not put her name to many of her works, but readers were startled from time to time by the wonderful new poems, until at last they were traced to the sick room of Elizabeth Barrett. In her sick room lived "Flush," a little dog given her by a friend; he was dark brown with long silken ears and hazel eyes, but, better than these, such a faithful heart, and
" . . . of thee it shall be said,
This dog watched beside a bed
Day and night unweary;
Watched within a curtained room,
Where no sunbeam brake the gloom
Round the sick and dreary."
He would push his nose into her pale, thin hand, and lie content for hours, till the quick tears of his mistress would sometimes drop on to his glossy head, and he would spring up eagerly, as if to share the trouble if he only could.
Here is a story about Flush which shows his devotion. The little terrier was stolen, and his mistress shed many tears for her lost favourite. She was accused of being "childish," but she could not help it.
"Flushie is my friend, my companion, and loves me better than he loves the sunshine without," she cried.
At last the thief was found, and he gave up the dog for some money, saying, "You had better give your dog something to eat, for he has tasted nothing for three days!"
But Flush was too happy to eat; he shrank away from the plate of food which was given him, and laid down his head on his mistress's shoulder.
115 "He is worth loving, is he not?" asked Elizabeth Barrett, when she had told this story to a friend.
One of her best-known poems is "The Cry of the Children." For the little overworked children in the large factories her human heart was stirred. She knew what a life they led from early morning till late at night, amid the rushing of the great iron wheels, or working underground in the damp and dark, and she could not be silent.
"Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers,
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows,
The young birds are chirping in the nest,
The young fawns are playing with the shadows,
The young flowers are blowing towards the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly!
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free."
They seem to look up with their "pale and sunken faces," and to cry that the world is very dreary; they take but a few steps, and get so tired, that they long for rest. It is true, they say, sometimes they die very young. There was one—little Alice—died lately; they go and listen by her grave and she never cries; no one calls her up early, saying, "Get up, little Alice; it is day!" time to go off to the droning, droning wheels in the factories, and—"It is good when it happens," say the children, "that we die before our time." It is no good to call them to the fields to play, to gather big bunches of cowslips, to sing out, as the little thrushes do:—
"For oh!" say the children, "we are weary,
And we cannot run and leap;
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep."
For the great wheels never stop; the little heads may burn, the little hearts may ache, till the children long to moan out:—
"O ye wheels—stop—be silent for to-day!"
Here were the children in their misery, life like, only too true and real; and then the poet pleads for them, pleads that they may be taught there is something in life as well as the great grinding wheels; pleads that the lives of the little factory children may be made happier and brighter.
And England heard the cry of the children. The following year fresh laws were made about the employment of children in factories; they were not to be allowed to work under the age of eight, and not then unless they were strong and healthy; they were not to work more than six hours and a half a day, and to attend school for three hours.
Three years after this poem was written Elizabeth Barrett married Robert Browning, the poet, and together they went off to Italy, where the softer air and mild climate brought back her health for a time.
"She is getting better every day," wrote her husband; "stronger, better wonderfully, and beyond all our hopes."
One of Mrs. Browning's happiest poems is the story of little Ellie and the swan's nest.
"Little Ellie sits alone," she begins, "'mid the beeches of a meadow." Then she goes on to tell us of her shining hair and face; how she has thrown aside her bonnet, and is dipping her feet into the shallow stream by which she sits. As she rocks herself to and fro she thinks about a swan's nest she has found among the reeds, with two precious eggs in it; then the vision of a knight, who is to be her lover, rises before her. He is to be a noble man, riding on a red roan steed shod with silver; he is to kneel at her feet, and she will tell him to rise and go, "put away all wrong," so that the world may love and fear him. Off he goes; three times he is to send a little foot page to Ellie for words of comfort; the first time she will send him a white rosebud, the second time a glove, and the third time leave to come and claim her love. Then she will show him and him only the swan's nest among the reeds. Little Ellie gets up, ties on her bonnet, puts on her shoes, and goes home round by the swan's nest, as she does every day, just to see if there are any more eggs; on she goes, "pushing through the elm-tree copse, winding up the stream, light-hearted." Then, when she reaches the place, she stops, stoops down, and what does she find? The wild swan had deserted her nest, a rat had gnawed the reeds, and "Ellie went home sad and slow." If she ever found the lover on the "red roan steed"—
"Sooth I know not: but I know
She could never show him—never
That swan's nest among the reeds!"
It was at Florence that Mrs. Browning's little son was born, "her little Florentine" as she loves to call him; she has drawn us many a picture of him with his blue eyes at amber curls, lit up to golden by the Italian sun.
"My little son, my Florentine,
Sit down beside my knee,"
she begins in one poem, and then she tells him in verse a tale about Florence, and the war in Italy, and. when it was over the child had grown very grave: For Mrs. Browning loved Italy with all her heart, and she watched the great struggle for Italian unity, which was going on, very anxiously. From time to time she wrote patriotic poems to encourage the oppressed, and to express her delight at their victories.
At the same time England was not forgotten.
"I am listening here in Rome," she wrote, when pleading for the ragged schools of London. Still, though under the clear Italian skies, she can see the ragged, bare-footed, hungry-eyed children begging in the London streets. It is a disgrace to England, she cries; she knows they cannot all be fed and clothed, but—
"Put a thought beneath the rags
To ennoble the heart's struggle,"
so that by gentle words the children may learn "just the uses of their sorrow." And again Mrs. Browning's appeal was not in vain.
One of her last poems was a very sad one, called "Little Mattie."
Mrs. Browning had, even in Italy, suffered very much from bad health, and in 1861 she died. She was buried beside a grassy wall in the English burial ground just outside Florence, the city she loved so well, in Italy, "my Italy" as she has called it, the land where Keats and Shelley lie.