Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sonnets From The Portuguese

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets From The Portuguese might be her most famous work.  It contained the poem of hers I was most familiar with, Sonnet 43:

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.

I can see why it's her most famous.  The collection is brilliant, but Sonnet 43 stands out among them.  She initially didn't want to publish this collection.  Her husband, Robert Browning (who the poems are about) encouraged her to do so.  He apparently said they were the best sonnets since Shakespeare.  Since my hubby thought I was reading Shakespearean sonnets, maybe he was right.

Another favourite for me was 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 may’st love on, through love’s eternity.

I think her take on love is pretty modern and refreshing. I didn't know about the darker quality of Browning's "love" poems until I read the first one.  It certainly grabs you, as love gets a "death grip" on you.  I loved the unexpected end of the first Sonnet.  I looked up some information about it online (without spoiling anything for myself.)  Sonnet XVIII has a morbid way of bestowing a token of love (giving a lock of hair that was the last place your mother kissed you before she died.)  I found Sonnet XXXII relateable because it talked about insecurity in a relationship; something everyone feels at one time or another, I believe.  I'm not sure I like the final Sonnet in the collection.  It's not as passionate as some of the others. Maybe because it comes after How do I love thee; that's a tough comparison.

I'm really glad I downloaded an ebook with no introduction.  I haven't been liking introductions lately.  I find that too often, they either give away part of the plot/spoil the ending or they tell you how you're supposed to react to whatever it is you are about to read.

I have to admit, though, I'm not as much a fan of Browning's self-deprecating poems, which are most of the first quarter of the sonnets.  There's a lot of "I'm not worthy of this man".  I suppose I can relate to the feeling of "I can't believe I'm so lucky" as I am married to an amazing man.  I guess, I like the love has gripped me idea more.  (Not that the poems aren't lovely.)

I haven't read a lot of poetry since I left University.  I took classes on poetry, changing how I looked at poems.  I can be overly analytical.  The last couple years, however, I've been allowing myself to enjoy poetry without having to dissect every single syllable.  I thoroughly enjoyed Sonnets From The Portuguese.  I look forward to reading more by Browning and more poetry.

This counts as #2 for the Classics Challenge!  Yay!


  1. Great review! Yes, I thought and experienced the same you relate when reading these amazing poems.

  2. Forgot to subscribe.