Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Love Sonnets

Who Was Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an English poet, famous for her line, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." from her poetry collection, Sonnets from the Portuguese, first published in 1850. This line is the opening phrase in Sonnet 43. The total collection includes 44 Sonnets, each one of them beautiful, inspiring and, at times, heart-breaking.

The Sonnets were written by Browning in secret at her father's home on Wimpole Street, where she lived as an invalid. At that time, Browning was having a love affair with a younger poet, Robert Browning. During her penning of the famous love poems, she and Robert also exchanged nearly 600 love letters during a 20-month period. Eventually, the two married secretly in 1846 and left London. Browning was 37 years old!

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Collections

Sonnet 14

Sonnet 14: Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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 certs 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 may'st love on, through love's eternity

How Do I Love Thee?

Browning never intended her poems to be published. Like the love letters, they were written purely from her heart, to describe the deep love and passion between the two lovers. In fact, Robert Browning was not even aware of the sonnets until they had been married for three years! Astounded by their stunning imagery (compared to Shakespeare), and soulful expression, Robert eventually convinced Browning to publish her works.

Consistent with the secret shroud under which they were developed and hidden from her lover, Browning published the sonnets under the guise that they were translated from a foreign language. The title "Sonnets from the Portuguese " was selected because one of Robert's terms of endearment for Browning was "my little Portuguese."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1809-1861)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1809-1861)
Signed drawing of Robert Browning
Signed drawing of Robert Browning

Throughout the courtship, Browning's sonnets depict a longing and uncertainty in the wisdom of pursuing this love. She was over 36 years old when she met Robert Browning and in poor health. The oldest of 12 children, Browning had a severe childhood illness and never fully recovered. Her mother passed away when she was 22, and then she lost a beloved brother. Although she was a world-famous poet at the time she met Robert Browning, she had largely lost her will to live.

The power of love completely changed Browning's life. After meeting and falling in love with Robert, Browning's health began to improve. She gained strength and surprised her doctor by surviving the subsequent winter (she had not been given a good prognosis at the time). The twist in the lovers' tale, however, was the impact of Browning's love life on her father. The progression of her sonnets shows her reluctance to leave the man with whom she had lived nearly 4 decades. Regarded as the favorite of her strict father, Browning was torn between her love for Robert and her paternal ties. Browning's father, too, was ambivalent about her affair with the man 6 years her junior.

Excerpt from Sonnet 25:

A heavy heart, Beloved, have I borne

From year to year until I saw thy face,

And sorrow after sorrow took the place

Of all those natural joys as lightly worn

As the stringed pearls ... each lifted in its turn

By a beating heart at dance time.

 

After the Brownings' marriage, they moved to Italy, where they resided until Browning's death in 1861. Her health had improved as a result of the loving relationship with Robert Browning, and the warmer climes of Florence, Italy. Still, she died at a relatively young age, in her early 50s. Browning spent the last years of her life devoted to political causes including the Italian Nationalist movement and the abolition of slavery in the United States. The couple had one child, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning.

Browning is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding poets of the nineteenth century. Her published works greatly exceed the well-known Sonnet 43. Of particular note, include "Cowper's Grave ," "The Cry of the Children ," "A Child Asleep ," and "He Giveth His Beloved Sleep ." But the raw, emotional turmoil of a love affair described throughout Sonnets from the Portuguese will leave you wondering if any truer expression of passion can be found in the English language.

What is a Sonnet? Check out this Hub for more information!

© 2008 Stephanie Hicks

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Comments 16 comments

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

Great hub--beautifully crafted, weaving together Browning's poetry with her bio--just lovely.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America

The 600 love letters reminds me of how we have lost the art of such letter writing.

In Japan long ago, each early morning, boys would run through the streets delivering love letters, doubtlessly poetry, on the end of long sticks that they carried high in the air. No one spent an evening or a night together without sending such a letter by a young messenger quickly the next day.


poseidon profile image

poseidon 8 years ago

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stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 8 years ago from Bend, Oregon Author

Thank you Robie2. I have the collection of sonnets, and I think they are just amazingly beautiful. Theirs is a true love story.

Patty! I so agree about the lost art of letter writing. I love the image in my mind of the Japanese boys carrying around the love letters on sticks. Thank you so much for sharing that!


singpec476 profile image

singpec476 8 years ago from Not Too Far Away

In today's world of social networking we do not hear much poetry it is always great to read, I admit to being a fan of John Donne he had an unusual outlook on life that can be seen in his poetry. Great hub.


peachtron profile image

peachtron 8 years ago from Reading

The sweetest love story ever. Thanks for the great hub!


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 8 years ago from Bend, Oregon Author

Thank you peachtron! I do love EBB! The collection of her sonnets and letters is truly beautiful.


knell63 profile image

knell63 7 years ago from Umbria, Italy

I went to see here grave in the English Cemetery in Florence, it is one of the most peaceful places ever. There is also a lovely site where she details here travels through Italy, it is really interesting. Enjoyed finding some more bits about EBB that I didn't know. Cheers Steph.


Ladybythelake55 profile image

Ladybythelake55 6 years ago from I was Born in Bethesda, Maryland and I live in Chicago,IL

I Love Elizabeth Barrett Browning Poems From The Portugese they are so beautiful and romantic.


Winsome profile image

Winsome 6 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

Hi Steph, as you probably have noticed I am a sucker for great romantic poetry and Elizabeth just may be our best. I didn't know the reason behind the "Portugese" title--thank you for the well crafted bio, it gives her work a greater depth, like the contrast of picture against a patterned matte. =:)


daisy joy 6 years ago

Her works are so romantic and heartwarming...


kirutaye profile image

kirutaye 6 years ago from London, UK

A well thought-out and written hub. Some interesting facts too.

Thanks for sharing.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK

A great hub on one of my favourite poets. I came across Elizabeth Browning's sonnet at school and fell in love with the ways she articulates love and its myriad manifestations, My favourite of hers, apart from the one you have mentioned is Sonnet 14:

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, Belovèd, 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.

It's a beautiful reminder of asking for unconditional love. Thank you for reminding me of her sonnets!


LisaMarie724 profile image

LisaMarie724 5 years ago from Pittsburgh PA

you have a wonderful way of telling a story, you made it a very interesting read!


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 5 years ago from Bend, Oregon Author

Thank you LisaMarie - I think that Elizabeth Barrett Browning's story is beautiful and romantic. :)


Agnes Penn profile image

Agnes Penn 5 years ago from Nicholson, Pennsylvania, USA

Thank you for writing about one of my favorite writers and love stories.

Robert Browning, an accomplished poet in his own right with a different style than Be, never let her talents rival his. Instead, he encouraged her and to this day both are known as one, if not the only, couple to achieve writer stardom.

The video is lovely and the hub's look is beautiful. In words and graphics you've done her justice.

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