How do I love thee?

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How do I love thee?
‘I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett…’ Veronica reflects on the life and work of the British writer, social campaigner and abolitionist Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

I look on the sea and the sky.
        Where the pilgrims' ships first anchored lay
The free sun rideth gloriously,
        But the pilgrim-ghosts have slid away
Through the earliest streaks of the morn:

My face is black, but it glares with a scorn
        Which they dare not meet by day.

 From 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point'


I love reading and poetry. As a teenager I loved Mills & Boon and classics such as Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations and poetry. When I think of poetry and love, it brings to mind Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who, for romantics like myself was author of one of the most well-known and quoted poems - How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Exploring writings by and on this fascinating lady made me realise that there was a great deal to learn: sexism, racism, parental loss, guilt, identity confusion and the nature of love.

Elizabeth was born in County Durham in 1806. One of twelve children, she grew up in a wealthy family in the countryside. Later, as a 40-year-old spinster and suffering from chronic lung disease, she not only met, but secretly married, her beloved husband Robert, for whom she wrote her famous poem, eloping with him first to France and then to Italy, after which she was disinherited by her father.

In the English society of the 1800s, women were expected to know their place, and prejudice against women writers was the norm. In fact, some women like the Brontë sisters and George Elliott published their famous books under male pseudonyms or even anonymously and faced resistance from both male writers and critics of the time.

Since her early childhood, Elizabeth knew that she wanted to be a writer and poet. She loved translating Greek verses and published her first writings at the age of fourteen. Although Elizabeth’s family cannot be described as impoverished, she sympathised with both the plight of the poor and the status of slaves, and campaigned on issues including child labour, poverty and slavery, challenging their social acceptance in poetry and writings such as Liberty Bell, The Runaway Slave at Pilgrims Point, and Cry of the Children. Her unique, powerful style of writing eventually won her a nomination for the position of Poet Laureate after the death of William Wordsworth, although the award eventually went to Alfred Tennyson instead.

The problem of identity came not just from Elizabeth’s position as a woman in a man’s world. She also pondered the meaning of her own ancestry, telling a friend ‘I belong to a family of West Indian slave-owners and if I believed in curses, I should be afraid.’ Her family were significant landowners in Jamaica, having had a presence on the island since it was captured from the Spanish by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in the 1650s. Both of Elizabeth’s parents remained significant plantation owners. Elizabeth believed that some of her family members were likely of mixed heritage, and with an increased awareness and sensitivity towards the issue of racial equality and human suffering, she became a passionate abolitionist who helped to shape/reshape British public opinion and promote ethical considerations.

So here in Elizabeth Barrett Browning we have someone from a sheltered upbringing who met and married an older man in secret, eloping to forge a new life for herself in Italy; and went on to suffer the pain of four miscarriages before the birth of her son. She remained a prolific writer and activist, who fervently supported the abolition of slavery. By the time of her death in Florence in 1861, her fame was such that her adopted country gave her a heroine’s funeral.

As we head into Christmas and then into 2022, many people are aware that the after effects of Covid-19, the issues of racism, equality and social justice still remain. When we spend money at Christmas on romantic gifts for our loved ones let’s think about How do I Love Thee, (my fellow man)? Let me count the ways.

Have a good Christmas everyone and keep safe.