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  • September 2011
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POW: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Hi! Welcome back to Poetry On Wednesday.

Do these lines sound familiar to you?

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

That’s the first line of a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, part of a book of sonnets about her love for her husband, Robert Browning (he was also a poet).  The sonnets are collected under the title Sonnets From the Portuguese, because “portuguese” was Browning’s affectionate name for E.B.B. (yeah, I don’t know,  but it’s kind of cute?)

Elizabeth-Barrett-Browning, Poetical Works Volume I, engraving.png Elizabeth Barrett Browning, photographed September, 1859, by Macaire Havre, engraving by T. O. Barlow.

These are some of the most passionate poems you’ll ever read… they also get a little creepy at times.  Here’s the conclusion of the “How do I love thee?” sonnet:

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose / With y lost saints, — I love thee with the breath, / Smiles, tears of all my life! –and, if God choose, / I shall love thee better after death.

(To be honest, that last line reminds me of two other lovers who loved better after death… Click on the link to find out who.)

There’s much talk of death in these love sonnets.  In fact, in East Liberty‘s copy of her complete works, some enterprising reader has tried to separate each sonnet between the two, and mark “love” or “death” in pencil next to every one. Even without knowing any details, you can gather that Barrett Browning’s life must have been depressing before she found her love.

In fact, although she had a happy childhood, she was struck by illness when she was 15 and was considered a permanent invalid, especially after her brother’s death by drowning in 1841.  In 1845 she received a letter from Robert Browning, who had read a book of her poems and felt compelled to tell her how much he admired them.  Their correspondence led to an anguished courtship.  Although Barrett Browning was by then nearly 40 years old, her father would not hear of any of his children marrying.  So they married in secret and eloped to Italy! *

Obviously,  Barrett Browning comes to see her husband as her savior from death itself, and is accordingly gushy.  She gushes through sonnets, a smart choice, as the sonnet is a short form of poetry that, by its definition, deals with two ideas that cause tension between each other but are related in some way.  Barrett Browning was conflicted about her relationship with her husband.  She loved him but felt unworthy of love at times.  She was a creative person who wrestled with the idea of revealing herself to the world through her works.  She had to elope AS AN ADULT.  Heavy, sonnet-worthy stuff.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

I do wish that she thought more of herself and her writing.  According to the intro to the sonnets in her complete works, she gave her husband the collection she had made of them, told him to read them and destroy them if he didn’t like what he read, and “fled again to her own room” (p. 214).  Luckily, Robert Browning knew how talented his wife was and made sure that the sonnets were made public.  Here’s sonnet XXIII, a typical representation of tone and theme:

Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead,
Wouldst thous miss any life in losing mine?
And would the sun for thee more coldly shine
Because of grave-damps falling round my head?
I marvelled, my Beloved, when I read
Thy thought so in the letter.  I am thine —
But… so much to thee? Can I pour thy wine
While my hands tremble? Then my soul, instead
Of dreams of death, resumes life’s lower range.
Then, love me, Love! look on me–breathe on me!
As brighter ladies do not count it strange,
For love, to give up acres and degree,
I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange
My near sweet view of Heaven, for earth with thee!

Note the mention of “your letter” –after she and Browning got together they wrote to each other almost daily, and produced a whole book’s worth of love letters, also available for checkout here at East Liberty (and other libraries).  They are very sweet.  Here she describes herself to Mr. Browning in  a letter from 1845:

“When I had an Italian master, years ago, he told me that there was an unpronounceable English word which absolutely expressed me, and which he would say in his own tongue, as he could not in mine – ‘testa lunga’. Of course, the signor meant headlong! –and now I have had enough to tame me, and might be expected to stand still in my stall.  But you see I do not.  Headlong I was at first, and headlong I continue–precipitously rushing forward through all manner of nettles and briars instead of keeping the path; guessing at the meaning of unknown words instead of looking into the dictionary –tearing open letters, and never untying a string, –and expecting everything to be done in a minute, and the thunder to be quick as the lightning.” (p. 5)

That’s my kind of poet.

If you need some burning love poems to chew over while the rain drizzles down around you, look no further.   If you can’t wait to get a copy from the library, I will mention that the Sonnets are available in full at Google Books.

*All info in this paragraph is paraphrased from the Preface of How Do I Love Thee: The Love Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, ed. V.E. Stack)

– Tessa, CLP -East Liberty

P.S.  Doesn’t Barrett Browning resemble another headstrong lady of letters (and music)… Patti Smith?  Decide for yourself:

Photo of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Pen (Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning)

Patti Smith at the Bowery Ballroom, by flickr user kimbospacenut

One Response

  1. Cripes, I never thought of the Patti Smith thing, but YES.

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