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'Sonnet XLIII' from Sonnets from the Portuguese
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breath 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 candelight.
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.
Something of a spoilt prodigy, Elizabeth Barrett could, apparently, read Homer in the original, aged eight. When she was only 14 her wealthy father published her work The Battle of Marathon (of which she would speak disparagingly in later life). At 15, however, an incident occurred in which, saddling her pony, she fell and sustained injuries which may - at least in part - have been psychosomatic. Thereafter she assumed more and more the role of invalid and seldom left her room, tended by her numerous close family, notably her stern, controlling father, Moulton Barrett, whose inherited fortune was based originally upon ownership of Jamaican sugar plantations - and slaves. Elizabeth continued to take a lively interest in literary matters from her sick-room (next door to Moulton's room, joined by an interconnecting door) whilst her contributions to the Athenaeum and other periodicals, coupled with further publications (such as the two-volume Poems in 1844) cemented a growing reputation.
Her relationship with Robert Browning, six years her junior, the recipient of her later love poetry, began on the 10th January, 1845, with the arrival of his first, admiring letter. Abandoning Victorian notions of propriety he expressed himself as follows - and to a total stranger - 'I do, as I say, love these [her] verses with all my heart -and I love you too'. Thus began a correspondence which would last twenty months, span 574 letters and culminate in a secret engagement and marriage, their elopement together to Italy and Elizabeth's estrangement/disinheritance from her father whom she would never see again.
The sonnet reproduced above (the penultimate of a forty four sonnet sequence) observes a classically Petrachan octave. The end-word of line ten, 'Faith' seems to stand alone - highlighting the noun - although it is flagged by half-rhymes which both precede it (lines 1,4,5 & 8) and trail after it ('breath' and 'death'). A MSS of the poem (in the possession of the British Library Board) written in the poet's shaky hand, appears at times to be almost illegible, though it can be seen that the word 'childhood's' (preceding 'Faith') is a correction. The 'my lost saints' of line twelve does not allude to a wavering piety -Elizabeth was a life-long Anglican- but rather to her mother, Mary, (deceased 1828) and her much-loved eldest brother, Edward ('Bro') who'd drowned whilst sailing with friends in Tor Bay in 1840.
The sequence of sonnets was begun in August, 1845, and completed two days before the Brownings' marriage of 19th September the following year. Much of their non-literary courtship occurred whilst Moulton was away on business, and in the Barrett's spacious London home, number 50 Wimpole street, where Elizabeth lived with her remaining siblings, her adored spaniel, 'Flush' and their attendant domestic retinue. Despite Robert's concern, Elizabeth was a confirmed and long-standing Morphine user - she, and her doctors, felt it helped calm her nerves. In the fortnight before the secret wedding, Flush was kidnapped by a notorious gang who seem to have made their living at this profession (it was Flush's third such adventure). He was eventually ransomed for six guineas - though Browning was of no assistance in the matter, claiming one of his notorious 'headaches' (fortunately, Elizabeth was independently wealthy through an earlier inheritance). The dog had bitten her suitor on their first acquaintance and had thereafter to be bribed by biscuits.
'Sonnets from the Portuguese' is a play on words. Though there seems to have been some semi-serious pretence that the poems were translations, 'The Portuguese' was Browning's pet-name for Elizabeth (or 'Ba' as she was known to the rest of her family). The nickname was occasioned by her dark complexion -though she may have felt some ambivalence about it, believing as she did that there was African blood in her family via a paternal ancestor's liaison with a slave-girl. The forty-year-old bride took some time to show her sonnets to her new husband, finally placing them in his pocket for him to find. As Browning later wrote (to Leigh Hunt) 'I never suspected [their existence] till three years after they were written. They were shown to me in consequence of some word of mine, just as they had been suppressed through some mistaken word; I could not bear that sacrifice and thought of the subterfuge of a name'. The sequence was first published in the final portion of the Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1850. Browning himself thought them the finest examples of their form since Shakespeare.
The Brownings were to enjoy fifteen years of happy marriage and the birth, after a series of miscarriages, of their son, 'Pen'. Elizabeth was to die of congestion of the lungs (and in Robert's arms) in Florence in 1861, at which time her literary reputation was considerably greater than her husband's -though this ascendency has subsequently been reversed. A successful stage play by Rudolph Besier, The Barretts of Wimpole street was premiered in 1930 and later made into a film, telling the story of the two writer's early romance.
Forster, M., Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Chatto & Windus (1988)
Hicks, M., [ed.] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Selected Poems, Carcanet (1988)
Kintner, E., [ed.] The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1845-1846, Harvard University Press (1969)
Markus, J., Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, Bloomsbury (1995).
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