Elizabeth Browning: A Leader, A Love Story, A Life

  • Browning
    Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  • AB library
    Armstrong Browning Library, photo courtesy of Baylor Photography.
March 4, 2016

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Contact: Terry Goodrich,(254) 710-3321

WACO, Texas (March 4, 2016) – How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

If you're familiar with that line, then you've heard of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was a famous Victorian poet, known especially for her sonnets and for writing about social issues.

March 6 marks the 210th anniversary of Browning's birth. Although she is recognized all over the world for her poetry, Baylor Nation may know of her for another reason: the Armstrong Browning Library.

Baylor University's Armstrong Browning Library is the biggest collection of Browning memorabilia in the world. Though the collection began as an assortment of only the work of Elizabeth's husband, Robert Browning, it has expanded to include the work of Elizabeth, their son, Pen, and many other 19th-century Victorian writers.

The library is a result of the work by Dr. A. J. Armstrong, whose personal collection created the base upon which the existing collection has been built. He raised money for and oversaw the construction of the library.

"I think he admired the optimism and the spiritual values that he found in Browning's poetry," said Cynthia Burgess, librarian and curator of books and printed materials at the library.

Armstrong met with Pen Browning before Pen's death in 1912.

"I really think that's something that probably spurred on his interest in Robert Browning, enough to provide some momentum for wanting to build the collection," Burgess said.

Burgess said although Armstrong was primarily focused on Robert Browning, he was also interested in Elizabeth.

"We do have, in our archives, a letter that Armstrong wrote to a colleague in the English department very near the end of his career, saying 'If only I had more time, I would build a Elizabeth Barrett Browning collection as well,'" Burgess said. "We were delighted to find that letter, because that's what has happened. The library has equal Elizabeth Browning materials and Robert Browning materials. I'm sure in Dr. Armstrong's collection there were some Elizabeth Browning materials, but through the years, we have certainly continued to build and add to the Elizabeth Barrett Browning collection."

The library has many artifacts from Elizabeth's life, including one of only three known manuscripts of the "Sonnets from the Portuguese," a collection of Elizabeth's most famous love poems, written while she was courting Robert Browning.

"We also have several of her poetical manuscripts notebooks, or her working notebooks, where she's writing out the poetry, and scratching things out, and writing above and on the side … we have several of those, and they are very important to Elizabeth Browning scholars," Burgess said.

In 2008, the library acquired a notebook that contains the only known draft of Elizabeth's "Sonnet 5," which Burgess described as "a wonderful discovery."

The library also has all of her first editions, including the poem 'Battle of Marathon,' which is very rare, said Burgess.

Also in the collection are various secondary sources, including books on Elizabeth's life and editions of her poetry that have been published since her death. There is also a five-volume set of her works that was published in 2010 of which the library's director, Rita Patteson, was a volume editor. Burgess was an associate editor for the set.

Burgess described Elizabeth as "a very intelligent woman" who felt that poetry was her calling, and used her poems to create social change.

"She was very well educated," Burgess said. "She had learned Greek and Latin, which was rare. She was a very precocious child. Her father encouraged her in the writing of poetry, and in fact he published for her a poem she wrote when she was 12 years old. So from an early age, her interest in this was encouraged and just highly motivated her to write poetry that would make a difference and be important, really say something."

Elizabeth wrote "The Cry of the Children" about children forced to be factory workers and an anti-slavery poem called "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point." She also published a poem called "Casa Guidi Windows" in support of the Italian Risorgimento, a movement for the country's unification.

"When she moved to Italy, she totally embraced the Italian cause," Burgess said. "Elizabeth was avidly in favor of this Italian cause and wrote poems before congress, which was not very well-received. They didn't like women writing about politics, they felt it was not their place, but she certainly felt she had the right to do it."

Robert also wrote poetry, but it took him many years to receive acclaim for his work. For a time, he was primarily known for being Elizabeth's husband.

"Elizabeth was well thought of as a poet from the 1840s at least, before she married Browning in 1846," Burgess said. "There was talk, when Wordsworth died, of Elizabeth being named the Poet Laureate of England. And that reflects how well-known and appreciated she was."

Her most famous pieces, her sonnets, reflect the well-known love story of Elizabeth and Robert. It began with Robert reading her poems and falling in love with her work, and then her. He sent Elizabeth a letter and, more than 500 letters later, they got married and moved to Italy.

Elizabeth's poetry has had a lasting impact in the world of literature and influenced poets such as Emily Dickinson.

"She was very popular in the 19th century, but as the 20th century began, her poetry was considered too sentimental – basically, poetry by women across the board was not well regarded in academia at the time," Burgess said. "But once the women's studies departments began, in the mid-20th century, to really flourish, there has been a resurgence of interest in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's work."

The library is located at 710 Speight Ave. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.

by Jenna Press, student newswriter, (254) 710-6805


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

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