Emanuel Swedenborg | influence

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The great British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning died on 29 June 1861. Suffering from an unknown illness for most of her life, she was both an invalid and a celebrated author by the time she met and fell in love with Robert Browning. Also a poet, Robert was six year's Elizabeth's younger; their courtship was carried out in secret and expressed in over 100 letters before they married in 1846. Christable LaMotte, the fictional Victorian poet in AS Byatt's wonderful novel, Possession: A Romance, was partly based on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Like many creative minds in the Victorian period, the Brownings read Swedenborg with interest and his key concepts of correspondences, transcendent love and a divine humanity informed both their poetry. Elizabeth's belief in the transformative power of human love and its spiritual value, has been compared to the mysticism of Danté and the transcendentalism of Emerson; it is also arguably 'Swedenborgian', as witnessed in Barrett Browning's most celebrated of sonnets, beginning 'How do I love thee?', written out below.

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 everyday's

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight,

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.

Sonnets from a Portugese, XLIII

Robert Browning never re-married after Elizabeth's death, sharing the belief of his deceased wife, that they would be reunited in a spiritual reality. For more on this, we recommend 'Swedenborgian Ideas in the Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning' by Richard Lines, In Search for the Absolute: Essays on Swedenborg and Literature (Journal of the Swedenborg Society no. 3)