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Victorian poets in love: Barrett and Browning letters go online

February 14, 2012 |  2:04 pm

Elizabeth Barrett Browning sculpture

Forget the chocolates this Valentine’s Day. Candles? Dinner? Clever repartee? That’s all so, well, 20th century.  For a truly 21st century celebration of love, you have to go back to the 19th -- and the Web has supplied a virtual time machine.

Starting Tuesday, anyone with a computer, tablet or the right mobile telephone can shift the paradigm with just a click -- and become involved in a passion for language that spilled over into an enduring, even legendary, Victorian love. It was a love that overcame chronic illness, a prohibition on marriage and disinheritance.

“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” poet Robert Browning wrote to his future wife.

“How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways,” Elizabeth Barrett wrote in her most famous poem, after meeting the man who would be her husband.

Now, through the marvels of technology, the couple’s 573 love letters are available online so that anyone can see them -- in a semblance of what they were. The letters are being offered via a digital collaboration between Wellesley College in Massachusetts and Baylor University in Texas, home of the world’s largest collection of material related to the couple.

Don’t expect any literary revelation -- the couple's poetry has been long available and oft published. But if the substance is not new, the format certainly is, giving fans a chance to see the letters as they were written, faded ink and all.

The story isn’t too shabby either, with the poets seeming to duel in their efforts to describe the other with terms more glowing, to adorn the other’s verse and life with compliments more graceful.

“You are too perfect, too overcomingly good & tender -- dearest you are, & I have no words with which to answer you,” Barrett wrote to Browning in 1846, months before the couple were secretly married.

Months later, Browning wrote: “Write to me one word more -- depend on me.”

She did.


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Photo: An 1880 sculpture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by artist William Story is on display at the Margaret Clapp Library on the campus of Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Beginning Valentine's Day, the famous love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning went online as part of a digitization collaboration between Wellesley and Baylor University in Texas. Credit: Steven Senne / Associated Press