Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Source of book: I own this – and so should all poetry lovers
Copyright information: Public Domain

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

This line is one of the best known, and most clichéd lines in all of English poetry. This is unfortunate, as the sonnet from which it comes is much deeper than the misuse of its opening line would suggest.

For those who have followed my continuing posts on poetry, a few things have probably become obvious. First, I am a hopeless romantic. Second, I am partial to poetry written by women. (Emily Dickenson was my first love, followed by Christina Rossetti.)

It was natural, then, that this collection should become one of my most read and most treasured volumes. Elizabeth’s musings on her legendary romance with Robert Browning feel deeper and more delicious every time I read them.

How legendary was her romance? It puzzles me that, so far as I can determine, Hollywood has ignored the story since the 1930s, making only a single movie about her life.

How can this be? All the ingredients are there. Elizabeth Barrett’s tyrannical father forbade all of his children from marrying. Indeed, he disinherited and disowned those who did. Elizabeth was a bit of a prodigy, writing her first poems around age 6, and becoming fluent in Greek and Latin by her early teens. She then contracted an unknown illness at age 15 which left her practically an invalid, and continued to affect her throughout her life.

She continued to live at home, her poetry gaining in both popularity and critical praise. All expected that she would remain an old maid. However, in 1844, when she was 38, a rising young poet named Robert Browning read her latest collection, and was smitten. He began a correspondence with her, meeting her in person a few months later.

Elizabeth had difficulty believing that Robert was sincere. After all, he was 6 years younger, and she was hardly beautiful. Sincere it was, however, and they eloped against her father’s wishes. He promptly disinherited her, and never saw her again. Robert and Elizabeth were married, happily by all accounts, until her death 15 years later.

Sonnets from the Portuguese was written during the courtship and presented to Robert by Elizabeth soon after their marriage.

I will assume my readers are familiar with the sonnet form. (An explanation follows as a footnote.)

The collection originally numbered 43 sonnets, but one additional poem was added in the last edition before Elizabeth’s death, numbered XLII. The poems trace the progression of the romance from its first stirrings until it blossoms into an intertwining of the two lives. Thus, although most of the sonnets can stand alone, they form an arc which is best read in the order presented.

In the first sonnet, the poet describes how her life seemed destined to end in sorrow, until she was grabbed from behind by a figure she assumed to be Death. However, she is soon informed that she has been captured by, “Not Death, but Love.”

Elizabeth fights her feelings, being sure that love is not for her, that she is too flawed to be loveable. However, she finds that she has become entangled. In sonnet VI, she writes,

                                                            What I do
            And what I dream include thee, as the wine
            Must taste of its own grapes.

Furthermore, she discovers that love is beautiful in and of itself, regardless of her perceived worthiness.


            Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed
            And worthy of acceptation. Fire is bright
            Let temple burn, or flax. An equal light
            Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed.

As she comes to accept love, she writes some of the most poignant and deeply true sentiments about love honestly felt and lived. Witness sonnet XXI on love as both words and silence.

            Say over again, and yet once over again,
That thou dost love me. Though the word repeated
Should seem a “cuckoo-song,” as thou dost treat it.
Remember, never to the hill or plain,
Valley and wood, without her cuckoo-strain
Comes the fresh Spring in all her green completed.
Belovèd, I, amid the darkness greeted
By a doubtful spirit-voice, in that doubt’s pain
Cry, “Speak once more—thou lovest!” Who can fear
Too many stars, though each in heaven shall roll,
Too many flowers, though each shall crown the year?
Say thou dost love me, love me, love me—toll
The silver iterance!—only minding, Dear,
To love me also in silence with thy soul.

Mixed with the ecstasy of love is also contemplation of her dreams, her disappointments, and her fears. She realizes that what she has been given far exceeds all of these. (From sonnet XXVI)

            Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.

These poems remain relevant today for any of us who have or aspire to have, true love. Deep love comes from a place unknown to the popular culture of the last several generations. Love cannot be based solely on surface considerations, and cannot be conditioned on what the beloved has to offer. Love is somehow bigger than all these – it cannot be entirely explained.

From the ancient:

            “My lover is mine and I am his.” Song of Solomon

To the modern:

            “If your heart settles on me, I’m for the taking:
            Take me for longing, or leave me behind.”
                        Alison Krauss and Union Station

This truth has been acknowledged. Elizabeth Barrett Browning states it beautifully in one of my favorites.


            If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only. Do not say
'I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day'—
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love's sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love's eternity.  

Finally, let us put to rest the cliché and the trite misuse of sonnet XLIII. This is not a dreamy minded teen playing with flowers. This is not a flippant list. This is a noble attempt to express the intertwining of two souls who shall part only by death.


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 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.

Footnote on the Sonnet form:

The sonnet is my favorite poetic form, both for its intrinsic beauty and for its requirement of rigid discipline.

A sonnet has 14 lines of 5 feet and 10 syllables each. (Iambic pentameter) There are two basic forms for the rhyme scheme.

In the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, used by Browning in this collection, the first 8 lines are rhymed abbaabba, with the second section of 6 lines rhymed in one of several variations. The most common are cdecde and cdcdcd. Browning’s sonnets are generally the second of these.

The first part of the poem typically balances the second. For example, the first may pose a question which is answered by the second. They may provide a contrast.

In the Shakespearian sonnet, there are three groups of four lines each, followed by a two line group. These are rhymed abab cdcd efef gg. The usual format presents an idea in each of the quatrains, with a conclusion stated in the closing couplet.

While the form may seem stifling, some of the greatest poets of the English language have found inspiration in its very rigidity. Milton and Shakespeare in particular mastered the form. I would certainly add Elizabeth Barrett Browning to that list.

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