Final Days of English Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning

About the final days of English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, biography and history.



Died: Casa Guidi, Florence, Italy, June 29, 1861, about 4:30 A.M.

"Ba," as her devoted husband of 16 years called her, was used to being sick, and Robert Browning was used to having her sick. She was, in fact, a semi-invalid from the age of 15, when she suffered a spinal injury. Years of pain and drug dependence had turned her, at 55, into a frail, hollow-eyed, increasingly lethargic woman overcome by weakness at the slightest exertion. Her life had become an unbroken succession of physical and emotional crises. In November, 1860, Elizabeth's sister Henrietta died. Devastated by grief, the distraught poet wrote to a friend, "It is a great privilege to be able to talk and cry; but I cannot, you know. I have suffered very much, and feel tired and beaten." She sympathized deeply with the cause of Italian independence in her Casa Guidi Windows (1851), and she was also shattered by the death of Count Camillo Cavour in the spring of 1861. She dreaded raising herself from her sofa for so much as a short walk on the terrace near Casa Guidi, the Brownings' home of 14 years. Her decline had been so gradual over so many years, however, that nobody suspected that she was dying. Elizabeth was, as she said, "always dying and it makes no difference." An attack of lung congestion on June 22 alarmed her, but she insisted that previous attacks had been worse. Speaking in a croaking whisper, she seemed curiously lighthearted, almost gay. While nothing indicated that she was nearing death, Robert Browning felt vaguely apprehensive.

During Elizabeth's last afternoon, she and her husband sat in the drawing room and discussed moving from Casa Guidi to a cooler villa outside Florence. Their 11-year-old son, Pen, seemed disturbed and asked, "Are you really better?" "Much better," his mother assured him. She drank her prescribed asses' milk that evening and ate a little bread and butter. "I not only have asses' milk but asses' thoughts," she whispered, then added, "I am so troubled with silly political nonsense." Robert Browning sat by her bedside as he had for the past several evenings. At 4:00 A.M. she seemed half delirious, and her hands and feet were icy cold. Robert held her in a sitting position on the edge of the bed and put her feet in a basin of hot water. "Well, you are making a fuss about nothing!" she said, almost laughing. Then he fed her some consomme and a "glass of lemonade, not a quarter of an hour before the end," he later wrote. "Do you know me?" he asked. "Know you. My Robert--my heavens, my beloved!" she exclaimed as she kissed him passionately. "Our lives are held by God," she said and embraced him, "kissing me with such vehemence," said Browning, "that when I laid her down she continued to kiss the air with her lips. . . . Her last word was when I asked 'How do you feel?'--'Beautiful.'" Still anxious, he raised her and felt her struggle to cough. She slumped in his arms and was gone. Her face seemed transfigured, he reported, with "all traces of disease effaced." Elizabeth died with a tranquil smile on her lips, and as Robert said, "She looked like a young girl."

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