A Postcard from Florence: Remembering Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

This was once known as the Island of the Dead. When Giuseppe Poggi, the great architect of modern Florence, knocked down the city’s medieval walls in 1865 and replaced them with wide avenues, he left this island alone, instead choosing to build the street right around it. Today it’s largely a forgotten place, surrounded by busy traffic and known simply to Florentines as the Cimitero Inglese, even though it contains more than English graves. From 1828 until 1878 all non-Catholics in Florence were buried here, including Germans, Russians and even a few Americans. It’s not marked on any map of the city, but the cemetery does allow visitors. There are a few hundred gravestones here under the shade of cypress trees. The most famous, especially for writers, is that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Although she’s only remembered today for her romantic sonnets, American poets owe a huge debt to Browning. She was a great influence on both Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe; Poe all but admitted he’d ripped off one of her poems in composing “The Raven.” Browning was also an outspoken champion of women’s rights and abolitionism, years before these movements gained popular momentum in Victorian England; many of her poems were unapologetically political. She wrote her first poem at age six and later married the man she loved, Robert Browning, knowing her family would disown her. When the couple moved to Italy, they became the center of a circle of expatriate writers that included George Sand, William Makepeace Thackeray and Harriet Beecher Stowe. She died in the summer of 1861, and the local shops around the Browning home closed for a day in honor of the English poet who called Florence home.


How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.





Image: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, photographed September, 1859, by Macaire Havre, engraving by TO Barlow. US public domain tag

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