Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the Dangerous Myth of the Suffering Artist and What Makes Life Worth Living

A beautiful clarion call for making creative work “the filling joy of your life” no matter how difficult the cards you’ve been dealt.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the Dangerous Myth of the Suffering Artist and What Makes Life Worth Living

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806–June 29, 1861) surmounted an uncommon share of adversity to become one of the most influential writers of the past two centuries, a guiding spirit to such varied pioneers as poet Emily Dickinson and astronomer Maria Mitchell.

Since her girlhood, Barrett was bedeviled by intense spinal headaches and muscle pain that would plague her for the remaining four decades of her life, now believed to have been hypokalemic periodic paralysis — a rare disorder that depletes muscles of potassium and effects extreme weakness. A century and a half before scientists began to uncover how emotional stress affects our physical wellbeing, Barrett’s health deteriorated significantly after a close succession of tragedies just before her thirty-fourth birthday — one of her brothers died of fever and another, the most beloved of her eleven siblings, in a sailing accident for which she blamed herself. The following year, she was taken to London in an invalid carriage and spent spent seven years almost continuously bedridden in a darkened upstairs room alongside her beloved spaniel named Flush. In a testament to Rosanne Cash’s assertion that for many artists, “creativity comes from the same room as their deepest pain,” Barrett counterbalanced the stillness of her suffering with a ferocious pace of composition that led to her first major literary success and invited the courtship of the poet Robert Browning.

“I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,” Browning, six years her junior, wrote to the stranger whose 1844 poetry debut had enchanted him beyond words. “I love these books with all my heart — and I love you too.” So began a courtship that would blossom into one of literature’s greatest loves.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

What made the poet so singularly enthralling, as a writer and as a person, was that throughout trials that would break most people, she refused to romanticize the archetype of the suffering artist and to take it on as her own identity. Instead, she chose to exult rather than sorrow in art, to find in it a life-force of unparalleled vitality. Nearly two centuries before Mary Oliver contemplated why a passion for creative work is the greatest antidote to suffering, Elizabeth Barrett Browning made an exquisite case for making art as our most powerful mechanism of self-salvation — a conviction she articulated in one of the many resplendent missives collected in The Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (public library | free ebook), which also gave us Barrett Browning on the seductive power of honesty.

In February of 1845, a month into their epistolary courtship and shortly before she composed the sonnet that gave us the immortal “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” Elizabeth writes to Robert, whom she is yet to meet in person:

I do not know, I cannot guess, whether you are liable to be pained deeply by hard criticism and cold neglect, such as original writers like yourself are too often exposed to — or whether the love of Art is enough for you, and the exercise of Art the filling joy of your life.

[…]

After all, and after all that has been said and mused upon the “natural ills,” the anxiety, and wearing out experienced by the true artist, — is not the good immeasurably greater than the evil? Is it not great good, and great joy? For my part, I wonder sometimes — I surprise myself wondering — how without such an object and purpose of life, people find it worth while to live at all. And, for happiness — why, my only idea of happiness, as far as my personal enjoyment is concerned, (but I have been straightened in some respects and in comparison with the majority of livers!) lies deep in poetry and its associations. And then, the escape from pangs of heart and bodily weakness — when you throw off yourself — what you feel to be yourself — into another atmosphere and into other relations where your life may spread its wings out new, and gather on every separate plume a brightness from the sun of the sun! Is it possible that imaginative writers should be so fond of depreciating and lamenting over their own destiny? Possible, certainly — but reasonable, not at all — and grateful, less than anything!

Complement this fragment of the altogether enchanting Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning with Marina Abramović on turning trauma into creative fuel and Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, then revisit more poetic and profound love letters by Kahlil Gibran, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, and Hannah Arendt.


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