"Mother and Poet" is an emotional and moving poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning about a woman poet who loses both her sons in battles in Italy. The emotions seem so raw that one might assume it describes EBB herself ... but she had only one son, who died at 63 of a heart attack, not as a young man in war. So was there someone else, a particular person whose tragic story inspired EBB's poem? Or was it just a general reflection on the tragedy of war and soldiers' families?

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‘Mother and Poet’ was first published in Last Poems (1862), where a note is appended:

[This was Laura Savio, of Turin, a poetess and patriot, whose sons were killed at Ancona and Gaeta.]

This is a reference to Baroness Olimpia Savio (1815–1889), a poet and writer from Turin, whose sons Alfredo (1838–1860) and Emilio (1837–1861) died in the Risorgimento. Between Emilio’s death at the Siege of Gaeta on 22 January 1861 and Elizabeth Browning’s death on 29 June, there was time for her to have learned of the event (she was living in Florence at the time) and composed the poem.

Savio’s diaries and letters were later edited by Raffaello Ricci and published in 1911 as Memorie della Baronessa Olimpia Savio.

The name ‘Laura’ in the note appears to be a mistake by the editor of Last Poems, Elizabeth’s husband Robert Browning. I suppose that it could be a deliberate indication that the character is fictional but based on Olimpia Savio, but a sentence in a letter from Robert Browning to Isabella Blagden, dated 15 February 1862, suggests otherwise:

If “Laura Savio of Turin” is really the name of the “Mother & Poetess,” my information is sufficient on that head.

The question says:

The emotions seem so raw that one might assume it describes EBB herself

which is a common trap for readers familiar with the 20th-century genre of confessional poetry and unfamiliar with the 19th-century genre of dramatic monologue, which was a favourite of both the Brownings (Robert’s collection Men and Women (1865) consists largely of works in this genre).

There is always a danger, of course, that students might believe that the author is the speaker of any first-person poem. We all know how often we repeat the mantra “the author is not the speaker.” Generally, students have more trouble keeping this in mind with lyrics than they do with narrative poems. Every semester that I teach ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,’ however, I receive at least one paper (and sometimes more than one) that refers to the speaker of the poem as if she were the poet, not merely in the careless confusion of pronouns and referents that can happen with lyric poems, but in an explicit and biographical way. […] Why do students make this error more frequently and persistently with this poem than with any other that I teach? I have come to the conclusion that it is a revelation of the nature of the dramatic monologue itself.

Melissa Schaub (2011). ‘The Margins of the Dramatic Monologue: Teaching Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point”’, Victorian Poetry 49:4, p. 557.

  • It's also quite possible that she might have had a given name of Olimpia Rossi Savio, but have been called by some of her friends Laura.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 14:52
  • @PeterShor: That may be the case but there's no evidence of it in her memoirs. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 15:01

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