Iowa Heritage Digital Collections
State Library of Iowa

Browning (Elizabeth Barrett Browning): A paper presented to the Des Moines Women's Club April 25, 1888, by Cora B. Hills


Browning (Elizabeth Barrett Browning): A paper presented to the Des Moines Women's Club April 25, 1888, by Cora B. Hills


A paper delivered to the Des Moines Women's Club, stored in a portfolio of early papers in the presentation suitcase.


Cora B. Hills;
Des Moines Women's Club


Des Moines Women's Club


25 April 1888


Des Moines Women's Club


U.S. and International copyright laws protect this digital image. These digital images may be used for educational purposes, as long as they are not altered in any way. No commercial reproduction or distribution of this file is permitted without written permission by Des Moines Women’s Club.






Archives, Des Moines Women's Club, Hoyt Sherman Place, Des Moines, Iowa

Repository Collection

Archives, Des Moines Women's Club, Hoyt Sherman Place, Des Moines, Iowa

Contact information.

Digital item created

24 September 2018


“Browning” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
Presented April 25, 1888 by Cora B. Hills

A volume of priceless value to the world, Elizabeth Barrett now at the age of 35 appeared to have completed her intellectual growth. It was a chance whether her future should be greater than her past, and nowhere was her name more honored or lauded than in the United States and many were the Americans who strove to obtain her cooperation in their schemes philanthropic or otherwise.
The abolitionists were the most energetic and successful- But now the most momentous event of her life the turning point of her destiny was at hand. Among the few living poets of whom she was wont to speak and write with admiration was Robert Browning.
She mentioned him in her poem Lady Geraldine’s Courtship and there is a pretty myth that this moved him to her side. He sought her out after that, however what may be from that time forward his name and reputation found frequent mention in her correspondence. How their affection friendship waxed, how their affection intensified and how finally they cast in their lots together is a sweet romance.
The world knows not- and never can know- only so far as they two chose to tell it. Mr. Browning says in that darkened room she studied and wrote and from her sick chamber went forth the winged inspiration of her genius these came into my heart and nesting there awakened love for the great unknown. I sought her out. I wrote her a letter intense with my desire to see her. She reluctantly consented to an interview, “I flew to her apartments- was admitted by nurse and the golden opportunity was not to be lost. Then and there in the presence of the nurse I poured out my impassioned soul into hers, though my fate seemed like an enthusiast’s dream.”
Mrs. Browning overcame her objections but not those of her father- and lifted the frail body from her lounge “to which she was bound as a picture to its frame” and bore her off from the fogs of England to a home under Italian skies. The nightingale who had long sung in the dark with her breast against a thorn now changed into a lark. Morning had come, singing for very joy at heaven’s gate which has since opened to let her in.
Never before did Hymen unite truer minds and never was man or minstrel more honored than her “most gracious singer of high poems.” In the tremor of her love she undervalued herself and there was never a woman who sang so divinely of love as she in her Portuguese Sonnets. What she said so magnificently of Sappho is true of herself- she broke off a fragment of her soul to be guessed by most- truly does she immerge forth in the first of her love sonnets- the change in her whole being-
I saw in gradual vision through my tears.
The sweet-sad years- the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me.
Straightaway I was ‘ware-
So weeping, how a mystic shape did move
Behind me, and drew me back-ward by the hair,
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove
Guess now who holds thee?
“Death” I said but there,
The silver answer rang
“Not death but love!”

The growth of this happiness, the worship of its bringer and the doubt of worthiness are the theme of these sonnets, which Steadman considers if not the finest portions of the finest subjective poetry in our literature, and thinks it no sacrilege to say that their music is showered from a higher and purer atmosphere than that of the Swan of Avon, Shakespeare.
His personal poems were the overflow of his impetuous youth. Mrs. Browning’s the outpouring of a woman’s tenderest emotions. The sonnet artificial in weaker hands in hers becomes “swift with feeling red with a veined humanity. Fifteen happy and illustrious years lay before them and never was there a more complete transmutation of the habits and sympathies of life than that which she experienced beneath the blue Italian skies.
At first the influence of her new life was of a complex nature. It opened a sealed fountain of love which broke forth in celestial song. It gave her a land and cause to which she thoroughly devoted her woman’s soul and much of her vagueness and gloom departed with her returning health.
Her technical gain was partly due to the stronger themes which bore up her wing and partly I have no doubt to the companionship of Robert Browning. Even if he did not directly revise her works neither could fail to profit by the others’ genius and experience.
Mrs. Browning’s devotion to Italy has become a portion of the history of our time and for fourteen years her oratory in Casa Guido was vocal with the aspiration of that fair land to be fee. Its beauty enthralled her, its poetry spoke through her voice, its grateful soil finally received her ashes and will treasure them for an age to come.
It was in Florence in Casa Guido where the three happiest years of her womanhood had passed- that her own young Florentine was born her Blue-eyed prophet thou to whom the earliest world daylight that ever flowed through Casa Guido windows chanced to come.
They named him Robert Barret Browning after his two parents- and I will add that the boy grew and prospered and is a successful man in art circles today.
While experience of motherhood had now perfected her woman’s nature, Mrs. Browning was at the zenith of her lyrical career. Her minor senses are admirable she revised her earlier poetry and Mr. Tilton has pointed out some of her fastidious and usually successful emendations. We have many charming glimpses into this beautiful poet home life at Casa Guido but I must content myself with a few sketches from the Hawthorn’s notebook.
After some search we found the Casa Guido which is a palace in a street not far from our own. Mr. Browning was very kind and warm in his expression of pleasure at seeing us. Mrs. Browning met us at the door of the drawing room and greeted us most kindly. She is very small, delicate, dark and expressive. She looked like a spirit. A cloud of hair falls on each side her face in curls, so as partly to veil her features but out of her veil looks sweet sad eyes.
The smallest possible amount of substance encloses her soul and every particle of it is infused with heart and intellect. I was never conscious of so little unredeemed perishable dust in any human being.
In the upper hall we found the little boy Browning so slender, so fragile and spirit like that in the dim light he looked like a waif of poetry drifted as into the dark corner with long curling brown hair and buff silk tunic embroidered with white.
We went out upon the balcony and in an old church nearby a melodious choir was chanting. The balcony was full of blooming flowers growing in vases. Overhead the stars- flowers of light- blossomed out one by one as evening deepened. The music and the flowers the Brownings and the child all combined to entrance my wits.
And my wits are further entranced by this picture of the Brownings and Hawthornes gathered together in that weird old Florentine palace conversing as only they could.
The beggars who walked under the Casa Guido windows called her the mother of the beautiful child. This was pleasanter to her ear than to “hear the nations praising her afar of” upon Casa Guido the grateful Florentines placed to her memory a white marble slab engraved in letters of gold.
The most mature of her works as Mrs. Browning terms Auroro Leigh had been germinating for some years in its authors mind before it was deemed fit to face the fierce glare of publication. The work seems to have been done at odd moments.
Mr. Browning says “my wife used to write it and lay it down to hear our child spell or when a visitor came it was tucked under a pillow.
At Paris she gave me the first six books to read. I never having seen a line before. She wrote the rest in London where I read them also. I wish in one sense that I had written and she read them.”
Probably no long poem ever met with so enthusiastic a reception. Its publication invoked a chorus of praise which Ingram says had somewhat modified in tone. Landor writing of it says “in many pages there is the wild imagination of Shakespeare. I had no idea anyone in this age was capable of such poetry. I am half drunk with it. Never again did I think I should.”