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: 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."
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