Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1850
“Sonnet 43,” the penultimate sonnet in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portugese is perhaps the most famous of sonnets, recited frequently at weddings and on soap opera picnics. Most hearers will recognize its opening line, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” even if they cannot name the author. The work most closely associated with Barrett Browning’s name, some critics have called it her most inspired poem. Barrett Browning originally printed Sonnets from the Portuguese as pieces she had found and translated. They were, however, her own compositions, inspired by the courtship of and her subsequent marriage to poet Robert Browning. The couple initially chose the deceptive title for publication because they perceived the poems as so forcefully revealing private emotions. They also had reason to worry that the drama of their courtship would overshadow the sonnets themselves. Barrett was an invalid under the tuta-lage of a domineering father when she fell in love with Browning, a man six years her junior. The couple eloped to Italy, and Barrett Browning bore a child at the then unusual age of forty-three. Once the autobiographical content of the sonnets became known, the author’s life did become the most common tool for reading the cycle.
While each of the 44 sonnets in the collection maintains a certain autonomy, it is also possible to regard each as part of an intertwined narrative depicting the various phases of a surrender to love. Read autobiographically, the cycle begins tentatively with the speaker’s amazement and distrust Page 235 | Top of Articlethat, in her sickly middle age, romantic love would appear. When she becomes convinced of the man’s love, she worries that, though sincere, it may be only temporary. The cycle’s movement suggests a good deal of hesitation—one step back for every two steps forward—as the speaker addresses her uncertainty. Can romantic love fill the void of familial community? Can the suitor make good on his promise to fulfill her needs? There is, nonetheless, an emotional progression, and in the final sonnets the narrator transcends her questions and warnings to her lover. Throughout the cycle, Barrett Browning describes romantic love in language that echoes the passion of religious conversion; “Sonnet 43” uses a particularly rapturous language to describe the love she feels for her lover. After the opening line, the poem details seven ways she loves him and closes with a request for love continued after death.
Elizabeth Barrett was born in 1806, the eldest child of a prosperous merchant family that owned a large estate in Herefordshire, England. In her early youth she distinguished herself by her devotion to poetry, literature, and classical studies. Largely self-educated, she began reading and writing verse at the age of four, and by the time she was ten, she had read the works of Shakespeare, Pope, and Milton, as well as histories of England, Greece, and Rome. In the ensuing years she went on to read the works of the principal Greek and Latin authors, Racine, Moliere, and Dante, all in their original languages, as well as the Old Testament in Hebrew. At the age of eleven she composed her first long poetic work, a verse epic in four books, which was privately printed by her father in 1820. When she was fifteen she suffered an injury to her spine while attempting to saddle her pony, and seven years later a blood vessel burst in her chest, leaving her with a chronic cough; she would suffer from the effects of these two conditions for the rest of her life. At the age of twenty Barrett published her first volume of poetry anonymously; it went nearly unnoticed by the public. At this time, she made the acquaintance of one of her most important friends, Hugh Stuart Boyd, a blind, middle-aged scholar who had published several volumes of translations from Greek texts. Under his influence Barrett renewed her study of classical Greek literature, reading Homer, Pindar, the great tragic writers, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, Xenophon, and
the works Boyd had translated. In 1832, due to serious financial losses incurred at the Jamaican sugar plantations where her father had made his fortune, the Barrett family were forced to auction their country estate and take up temporary residence in the south of England, moving in 1835 to a house in Wimpole Street, London.
In 1838 Barrett published her first major work, The Seraphim and Other Poems, for which she received critical acclaim. Reviewers acknowledged her as one of England’s most gifted and original poets. Due to poor health, she moved to Torquay, on the south coast of Devonshire, at the advice of her physician. She spent three years living there as an invalid. During her stay at Torquay her favorite brother and constant companion Edward drowned on July 11, 1840. She considered his death the greatest sorrow of her life; she never spoke of the loss even with those closest to her. When she returned to Wimpole Street from Devonshire, Barrett resigned herself to life confined to her bedroom as an invalid. Despite her sickness, Barrett enjoyed fortunate circumstances: she was freed to pursue her studies and writing by generous inheritances from her grandmother and uncle that made her independently wealthy, and her physical weakness excused her from the taxing household chores that would ordinarily have fallen to an eldest daughter.
She resumed her literary career and began producing a steady output of poems, essays, and translations, for which critics in England and the United States praised her as one of England’s greatest living poets. In January 1845 she began exchanging letters with Robert Browning, who first wrote to her to express admiration for her poems. The following year they married and moved to Florence, Italy, hoping that the warmer climate would help Barrett Browning to recover her health. Their son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, was born in 1849. Until her death in Florence in 1861 from complications of a severe cold, Barrett Browning continued producing works that earned her the admiration of English and American readers. At the time of her death, obituary notices appeared in many respected journals on both sides of the Atlantic. Comments that appeared in The Edinburgh Review reflected the prevailing view that Barrett Browning was unequalled in the literature of any country: “Such a combination of the finest genius and the choicest results of cultivation and wide-ranging studies,” the magazine asserted, “has never been seen before in any woman.”
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 every day’ 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.
At this point the reader cannot know whether this is a rhetorical question. The opening line might seem to present an impossibility or an absurdity in its attempt to define an abstract concept, love, by mathematically adding up instances of it.
Dealing in lofty and abstract ideas, the speaker provides no image or symbol to make her love concrte or easy to grasp. Since “Sonnet 43” appears second to last in the cycle of sonnets, some critics have justified these abstractions by referencing them to other sonnets in the volume, arguing that the sonnets must be read as an intertwined narrative to be fully understood. Be that as it may, the abstractions occuring at this point establish the largeness of her love, maybe even making it beyond comprehension. Several critics have pointed out that “the depth and breadth and height” echoes Ephesians III 17-19, where Saint Paul prays for comprehension of the length, breadth, depth, and height of Christ’s love and the fullness of God. The terms “Depth, breadth, and height” all refer to dimensions, and the speaker specifies the condition of her soul at the time these dimensions are largest: “when feeling out of sight.” Taken in context, the phrase probably describes a soul that feels limitless. Other phrases can be decoded to similarly spiritual expressions of love and being, including “For the ends of Being”—death or at least a bodily death—and “ideal Grace”—heaven. Specific religious meanings for concepts like “grace,” “soul,” and “being” are, however, far from given, since the poem provdes a good deal of room individual interpretation.
Sun and candle-light are the first concrete images we come across in this poem. The earthly time frame these lines suggest, however, is still limitless and all-encompassing; “by sun and candle-light” refers to both day and night.
The speaker’s perspective narrows or even “comes down to earth” a little, shifting from its most religious tone to a focus on more apparently secular human interests. She does, however, select a particularly glorified image of humanity to identify with her love, personifying it as men who are both righteous and humble.
The perspective contracts further—and provides the sonnet’s “turn.” The speaker’s very broad and abstract view becomes concretely personal, turning away from the limitlessness of religion or the outside world to the within of her individual past. Specifically, she describes her love such that it changes the quality of grief, making that grief almost welcome in retrospect. The word “passion,” however, introduces several levels of meaing; most significantly, it brings back the religious allusions of lines two through four by recalling the passion Page 237 | Top of Articleof Christ. The image of a childhood faith, distinct from the speaker’s current faith, suggests something especially pure and innocent.
It seems that romantic love rescues a lost religious faith, or at least rescues the passion and impulse the speaker used to feel for religious faith. The “lost saints” can be read both literally and figuratively, as the saints of the church, Christian liturgy or ritual, or even people who once guided the speaker—her own personal saints.
“Smiles, tears, of all my life” echoes back to “my old griefs” in line 10, and the speaker begins the closure of the poem where she hopes to be able to achieve an even greater love after death. With humility, the speaker acknowledges that this desire might not be within her power to satisfy.
Love and Passion
In the octave or first eight lines of the sonnet, the speaker attempts not so much to “count” the aspects of love as to measure love’s extent, its “depth and breadth and height.” In doing so, however, she encounters an inevitable problem: while she is trying to define an abstract condition, the dimensions she specifies in line 2 are strictly physical ones. Using the three-coordinate system, we can mathematically plot any point in space, but we can never objectively locate concepts such as “love” or the “soul.” Instead, we search for indirect or figurative means of discerning metaphysical properties in a physical universe. Our everyday lives are filled with instances of this. We might, for instance, project anger into three-dimensional space by breaking an object. Similarly, we often observe in the natural world ready-made expressions of our abstract feelings: we might perceive our own sense of romance in the setting sun, our loneliness in a dark night, or our fear of impermanence in a snuffed-out candle. But while metaphors allow us to hint at unnamable concepts or conditions, they can never define them entirely.
The speaker’s problem, then, is that she lacks the earthly terms to describe the spiritual state of love. What she can say is that it encompasses her entire existence. Since human life is filled not with continuous rapture but with small, ordinary moments
her love reaches “the level of every day’s / Most quiet need.” Since life is lived chronologically, she loves in an unbroken sequence of time, both “by sun and candle-light.” And since humans possess free will, her love is given “freely, as men strive for Right.” Yet while these comparisons seem vast in human terms, they are still restricted by the bounds of mortality. Even when the speaker approaches the most transcendent state, “feeling out of sight” of the physical world and reaching “for the ends of being” (the self) and “ideal Grace” (the eternal, or God), she cannot make the final leap away from spatial reality. Her soul is still described in three-dimensional terms. In short, she is confounded because love feels eternal but she is mortal.
Flesh and the Spirit
In keeping with the Petrarchan form, the sonnet moves from consideration of the problem in the first eight lines to resolving it in the sestet. The problem is that the speaker’s love seems to supersede her mortal self, leaving her frustrated and Page 238 | Top of Articlereaching for a variety of metaphors to describe her devotion. Even as she explores the greatest reaches of the self—“the ends of Being”—she finds love dwelling in the unattainable region of “ideal Grace.” In Platonic terms, the ideal can be approached but never fulfilled because it is purely conceptual. In Christian terms, such a state can be achieved only through relinquishing the self entirely—that is, through death.
Similarly, love requires a kind of death: the death of the former, individual identity, that is sacrificed to the beloved and to love itself. In exchange, love brings a kind of transcendence; reborn, the lover becomes greater than before, privy to more acute insights and capable of more heroic actions. Such a transformation seems akin to a religious experience, and it is on this idea that the sonnet turns in the last line of the octave. The two concepts introduced there, pureness of devotion and humility(“turn[ing] from Praise”), are the self-effacing prerequisites of Christian worship. According to to the teachings of Jesus, to turn to God one must turn away from the self—to release all earthly desires and ego-driven ambitions. In the sestet, then, the speaker is able to articulate feelings for her beloved in the other-worldly terms she already understands: Christian terms.
The notion that death enables a person to “love ... better” is ubiquitous in Christian lore. The lives of the saints are filled with examples of martyrs willingly succumbing to execution or murder in order to achieve a state of “ideal Grace.” Each of these martyrs—these “lost saints”—suffered “griefs” and endured the a “passion” similar to Christ’s. Dying for God, they achieved a love they could not “lose”—an eternal love that could never again be eroded by the “smiles” and “tears” of life. The speaker finds in this a metaphor for the kind of love she feels for her paramour. As pure and complete as a saint’s love of God, the feeling blinds her to all other possibilities and returns her to an innocent condition—to “childhood’s faith.” In addition, it accounts for her inability to measure the extent of her love in earthly terms. Given its divine, eternal aspect, her love might reach perfection in some sphere beyond “the ends of Being”—that is, “after death.”
Barrett Browning composed “Sonnet 43” in the form of a Petrarchan Sonnet. A sonnet is a fourteen line poem in iambic pentameter, the most common types of which are the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet. The Petrarchan sonnet consists of two quatrains—sections of four lines—that are usually recognized as forming an octave—an eight line section. The octave is followed by a sestet, or a six line section. The Petrarchan sonnet has a rigid abbaabba rhyme scheme in the octave. The rhyme scheme in the sestet is variable, most commonly cdcdcd but occasionally cdecde or cdcdee. Both types of sonnets present and solve a problem; in the Petrarchan sonnet, the problem or issue is set up in the octave and solved in the sestet. A “turn”—a marked shift in subject or emotion reflected by a change in form—occurs at the ninth line, between the octave and sestet. In anticipation of this, the second quatrain(the second half of the octave) advances the subject matter in some way, rather than merely repeating it in a different form.
Although the whole of the Victorian age witnessed a diminution of religion’s impact on the greater society, the early Victorians were swept in great numbers by a last wave of Christian fervor known as Evangelicalism. The movement was primarily a response to main-line Anglicanism, the official religion of England, which in the previous century had grown spiritually dull and detached under the influence of Enlightenment rationalism. Particularly to middle-and lower-class people who did not share in the church’s power base, Anglican “Latitudinarianism,” as the school was called, had abandoned those aspects of religion that constitute its natural appeal. It said little about the individual’s “personal relationship” with God, for instance, and frowned upon emotional or passionate forms of worship. In response, a number of dissenting movements had formed, most notably the Methodist or Wesleyan church begun by Charles and John Wesley in the 1730s. While members these groups stood officially outside the Anglican church—and in fact relinquished a number of personal rights as a consequence—many others shared dissenting views but, for various reasons, remained Anglicans. These people, the Evangelicals or “Low Church” members, teamed with Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists to spread a more zealous and, in some ways, more invasive brand of
Christianity throughout the early nineteenth-century culture.
As a religious philosophy, Evangelicalism cared little for human authority on issues of doctrine or ritual. Instead, its primary source on all matters of faith was the Bible itself, which Evangelicals read diligently and interpreted literally. Of all Biblical themes, Evangelicals focused especially on that of individual salvation through divine grace, or the intervention of God. According to this concept, man was an essentially corrupt or sinful creature, given to vices and prone to straying from God’s intentions. Yet despite his devilish nature, man was capable of being “saved” through conversion to a more “fundamental” notion of Christianity. This type of conversion, which finds its modern-day American equivalent in “born-again” Christianity, required a complete suppression of bodily lusts, desires, and pleasures. Every action—and every thought—was in itself only a preparation for Heaven, where a person’s life would be called into account for its virtues and vices.
In theory, Evangelicalism was an intensely personal form of religion. It called for an individual to examine his own behaviors and intentions, to look into his heart and compare what he found with the greater designs of God. In practice, however, Evangelicals spent a great deal of time examining the behaviors and intentions of each other. A type of Evangelical conformity settled particularly into the Victorian middle class, and its result was the prudish or “proper” set of manners and mores we now associate with Victoriana. Examples of this are familiar. Fashion styles and people’s use of language veered away from suggestiveness and toward “decency,” forms of sexual expression in art and literature were often censored or prohibited, and temperance became the vogue. Gone were the Page 240 | Top of Articlesocial dispensations for the Byronic rogue, whose drinking and womanizing had become part of the Romantic artist’s persona. Above all, prudence ruled the day. The prudent person, who worked hard at his daily occupation and practiced the self-discipline required to keep his affairs in order, was considered to possess the highest character. By consequence, poverty was regarded as the result of low character and imprudence, and the Evangelical temperament often attributed a person’s lack of means to idleness or even vice. All of this influenced efforts at social reform. Evangelicals believed that wiping out poverty required not only charity, which they advocated, but also converting the poor to Evangelical Christianity and legislating against various vices. Some of their accomplishments remain effective even today. These include “public decency” statutes that regulate certain kinds of expression, as well as “blue laws” that prohibit taverns and other businesses from operating on Sundays.
“Sonnet 43” exemplifies the poet’s use of religious allusions throughout Sonnets from the Portuguese. John S. Phillipson, writing in the Victorian Newsletter in 1962, notes the echo of St. Paul, Ephesians III 17-19, where Paul prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.” Philipson suggests that “Sonnet 43” adapts St. Paul’s thought into a new context, explaining that the “tone mingles suggestions of divine love with profane, implying a transformation of the latter by or into the former and an ultimate fusion of the two after death.” While other critics have not investigated the religious imagery in such detail, they generally acknowledge the importance of reverant language in the poem. In her book Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Radley states that “Students often find Elizabeth confusing on the subject of God, Love, and Robert Browning. For her, however, no confusion exists: God is Love; and Robert Browning’s love brought concrete form to the concept: in a Platonic sense, it gave form to the formless.” She concludes that, in Barrett Browning’s understanding, the “flame of love is divine in origin; it burns through lovers; its fire distills all lesser metal out; what remains is the pure essence.”
Brent Goodman is a freelance writer and has taught at Purdue University and mentored students in poetry. In the following essay, Goodman explains why the sonnet form was the vehicle Barrett Browning employed in expressing her love for her husband and suggests that the poet’s slight alteration of the form only makes her argument more convincing.
Traditional poetic forms help writers give shape to subjects that are otherwise difficult to manage or get a handle on. The sonnet, for example, which comes in many variations, traditionally has fourteen lines, a set pattern of rhyme and a set number of stresses, or beats, per line. In the most traditional sonnets, not only is the structure of the poem defined already for the writer, but the organization of the subject matter as well. The first eight lines typically set up a situation or a problem, and the remaining six lines work to resolve that problem or come to some conclusion. Elizabeth Barret Browning, a skilled and well-respected poet even in a historical period not friendly to women writers, knew that the sonnet, with its defined boundaries and logical progression, was an attractive container for expressing her secret love for her husband, the less popular poet, Robert Browning. But she was also interested in breaking boundaries, perhaps reflective of her secret marriage or her years fighting poor health and an overly protective father. In “Sonnet 43,” published under the guise of a translation in her book “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” Barrett Browning combined both traditional and nontraditional form to craft an expression of her secret, yet powerful, love for her husband.
Although she begins the poem traditionally by setting up a central question to resolve, “How do I love thee?,” Barrett Browning quickly begins to break away any tangible boundaries by answering “to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach.” We can use these first two lines as an example of the balance she sets up throughout the poem between a logical, structured form such as the sonnet, and the wide-reaching feelings she has for a man her father never forgave her for marrying. Page 241 | Top of ArticleThis idea of a relationship between a poem’s form and its subject is central issue to any writer, and Barrett Browning skillfully “bends the rules” throughout the poem to express this tension.
In order to break the rules, a poet must first know and master the rules. Traditional sonnets are constructed using iambic pentameter, which consists of five stressed words and five unstressed per line. An iamb, with its two beats and accent on the second, sounds similar to the rhythm of our heart: da-DUM, da-DUM. It is a naturally relaxing meter, a sound our bodies are familiar with. On the other hand, using strict iambic pentameter line after line tends to have a sing-song quality, repetitive and sometimes distracting to the reader. Barrett Browning changes the traditional iambic pentameter right from the very first line, the accent on the first word rather than the second, then using two unaccented beats before the stress again, “HOW do I LOVE thee?” before slipping back into the traditional rhythm for the rest of the line.
Reading this poem aloud, we can find these changes of rhythm throughout, some lines following iambic pentameter, others inverting stresses or changing the rhythm entirely. Notice, too, how the changes in each line’s rhythm matches the mood or subject matter of that line. In lines where she’s comparing her love to the most domestic or common events of day-to-day living, as in the first line of the second stanza, the rhythm matches this plain or common mood, only slightly deviating from strict meter, “I LOVE thee TO the LEVel of EVery DAY’s ... “On the other hand, as she moves on in the poem, and her voice gets more and more passionate as she continues to develop her list of ways she loves her husband, she builds each line’s rhythm to match this mood. By the time we reach the final stanza, her lines find a rhythm of their own, almost completely ignoring traditional form “WITH my LOST SAINTS—I LOVE THEE with the BREATH, / SMILES, TEARS, of ALL my LIFE!”
Another set structure for sonnets is how each line ends. Traditionally, each line ends with punctuation, a period, comma or otherwise to create a pause and contain a complete thought. Lines which end this way are called end-stopped. Reading through “Sonnet 43,” we notice that five of the 14 lines do not end with a set pause; rather, they are enjambed. Enjambed means to carry over; this term describes how one line flows into the next without hesitation. To try to understand what Barrett Browning’s intentions might be for this move away from traditional form, it is useful again to notice
again what the mood of the poem is where she breaks the rules. In the first stanza, as she begins to “count the ways,” the ways she describes are farflung and without boundaries: “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.” Appropriately, these lines flow together without pause, the lines themselves reaching for something that keeps slipping out of grasp. Browning matches this method again in the last stanza, as she compares her love to a previous love she now misses—“a love I seemed to lose / With my lost saints.”
For as much as Barrett Browning enjoyed bending the rules, many editors, including those of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, emphasize the strong Victorian themes in her work. Barrett Browning lived during the same period as Emily Dickinson, who, the editors point, out admired Browning for “her moral and emotional ardor and energetic engagement with the issues of her day.” Although Barrett Browning often breaks out of strict form, her analogies or comparisons for how she loves her husband are often rooted in the traditional religious or moral terms of her day. Instead of answering the question she sets up in the beginning—“how do I love thee?”—with concrete images or details we can experience using our senses such as “our love is a red, red rose,” Barrett Browning instead chooses religious abstractions. For someone growing up in the Victorian period, however, lines such as “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right; /I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise” would be just as emotionally powerful Page 242 | Top of Articleas the most well-detailed image is to today’s readers. It is sometimes difficult for modern readers to grasp the emphatic statement of these moral terms despite the fact that the writer capitalized them. But Barrett Browning’s list of ways she loves her husband, packed with catchwords such as “Being,” “Grace,” “Right,” “Praise,” “faith,” and “saints,” not only reflects her strong religious upbringing, they would have spoken deeply to readers of the same religious sensibilities.
If we remind ourselves that Browning disguised this poem as a translation in a book of fortyfour other sonnets called Sonnets from the Portuguese and remember that it is a love poem written for a man her father forbade her from marrying, the ways in which she loves him suddenly take on more conviction; the poet is writing from the point of view of someone fighting against the odds. It is little wonder, then, that she packs this poem with religious analogy, a sense of worship and praise. The actual list of ways she does love him ranges from the most lofty, “the depth and breadth and height / my soul can reach,” to the everyday and domestic, “to the level of every day’s / Most quiet need, by sun and candle light,” to the reaches of the past, her “old griefs, and with [her] childhood’s faith.” All of these ways accumulate until, by the end of the poem, her voice is so passionate it cannot stay within traditional form. Instead, the lines enjamb often and the punctuation of choice becomes long dashes and exclamation points rather than commas and periods.
Reaching the last lines of this poem constructed around a central question, we are curious as to what solution or resolution Barrett Browning finds after such a passionate search. Traditional English sonnets end with a rhymed couplet, or two lines whose last words rhyme, as in Shakespeare’s “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings” from the end of “Sonnet XXIX.” Here again, Browning mixes up the form, choosing instead to invent her own rhyme pattern in the last six lines, even using “slant” rhyme between the words “faith” and “death.” (These words rhyme only in their consonant sounds; their vowel sounds do not match.) The traditional resolution does come too, but not how we would expect. Although she loves him “with the breath, / Smiles, tears of all [her] life!,” her final answer is one of complete selflessness and sacrifice, handing over the choice to another. She leaves the answer up to a higher decision maker: “if God choose, /I shall but love thee better after death.” And although this poem ends on the word death, the mood does not feel as depressing as it does celebratory, a person so in love, even the end of life on this earth does not mean the end of love.
Source: Brent Goodman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
David Kelly is a freelance writer and instructor at Oakton Community College, Des Plaines, IL, as well as the faculty advisor and cofounder of the creative writing periodical of Oakton Community College. He is currently writing a novel. In the following essay, Kelly discusses the criticisms of “Sonnet 43 “—from both present-day readers and the critics of Barrett Browning’s day.
For every two dozen contemporary readers who can tell you that “let me count the ways” is the line that comes after “How do I love thee?” in some poem somewhere, only a few will be able to recite another line from the poem. Ask the same people for one more line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and you will be lucky if they respond with something from Robert Browning or some words from “John Brown’s Body.” That opening couplet has burrowed into our national subconscious while the rest of the poem has somehow wandered away, gotten itself lost: we are captivated with the thought of a speaker listing the ways of love, but collectively we don’ t care very much for the ways that Barrett Browning has listed. The poem’s language, of course, plays a large role in the public’s distaste. Modern readers see archaic diction like “thee,” not as the language of love, but as the language of a simple people who liked to express their love in artificial terms: to them, our fear of artificiality would seem weird. We do appreciate archaic language for highly formal ceremonies such as weddings and graduations, but, like lace and minuets, a little adds a traditional touch while a lot looks embarrassingly like a pose. More than the language, though, modern readers reject the level of intellectualization in Barrett Browning’s examples. Love is more often shown today as something that cannot be touched by ideas, as existing in a separate dimension from rational thought, and so the poet’s attempt to put measurements on time and space ends up looking a little forced. In fact, at the time she was writing Barrett Browning struggled with this same question of capturing emotions in logical terms, but her peers felt the opposite of today’s readers: they found her too vague and emotional. Part of the reason for this Page 243 | Top of Articlewas that she felt the artistic right to bend the rules of literary traditions, and part of was the iron-clad presumption of sexual roles, which made both male and female readers assume that every original move came from silly female whimsy. This poem is one of the author’s most straightforward, controlled pieces, which managed to temporarily quiet the critics who doubted her technical ability, but also deadened the passion that the poem began with.
This poem is the forty-third of forty-four Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of interrelated poems in which the poet chronicled her courtship with her husband, famed Victorian poet Robert Browning. “Chronicled” is an inexact word, however, since these poems do not contain a sequence of events but generally are abstract impressions, though most are not as abstract as “Sonnet 43.” The Brownings had one of the great romances in all of history. A character in one of her poems courted a woman by reading a section from a Robert Browning poem; Robert wrote to Elizabeth in January of 1845 to say how much he adored her work, stating “I love your verse with all my heart” and, at the end of the letter, “... I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart—and I love you too.” They corresponded and met in person for the first time that May; and the following September they were married, against her father’s will. Elizabeth, who had been chronically ill to the point of being bedridden most of the time since she was fifteen(she was forty when they were married, six years older than Robert) compared their romance to the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, reminding her husband that before he came along her life had, in effect, been over. It is easy to guess, then, why she would use abstraction when exploring her love in her poetry: with such a charmed, fortunate romance, the writer could easily be excused for taking more interest in how well it worked out than in what made it work. Readers only familiar with “Sonnet 43” might not understand how much of the Barrett-Browning relationship(again, though, not the specific details) went into this series of sonnets. As a matter of fact, when Barrett Browning first published these poems within her 1850 book Poems, she pretended that they were translations of other poets’ works at her husband’s request, because he felt that they were “too passionate” to be associated with such a gentle and cultured lady: hence the title Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Throughout the book she uses the Italian(Petrarchan) sonnet form, which was devised by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch, whose works Barrett Browning actually was translating at the same time that these poems were written. The form, of course, had 500 years of tradition to uphold, as well as strict rules that were formally a part of its definition. The Italian sonnet has fourteen lines that can be divided into sets of eight and six, as this poem has; it has ten syllables per line; it has a rhyme scheme of abbaabba for the first eight lines, and then a number of variations permitted for the second six, including this poem’s cdcdcd. The strict form was good for Barrett Browning, whose earlier works had been criticized for clumsy rhythms and inept rhymes. In “Sonnet 43” we can see that she was no fanatic about precision in her rhymes: “ways” / “Grace” and “faith” / “breath” are minor infractions, but still could probably have been avoided. Without such a simple, solid form to follow, Barrett Browning’s rhymes tended to stray so far from true rhyming that some readers found them slightly disgusting. The sonnet tradition also worked well with the subject of one woman’s view of her developing romance. The sonnet is traditionally a love poem. The Italian sonnet usually is more of a story, with rising action in the first stanza and falling action in the second, as opposed to the other major sonnet form, the English sonnet, which offers three parallel examples in consecutive four-line stanzas and then draws a conclusion about them in lines 13 and 14. The content of “Sonnet 43,” with its multiple examples of the speaker’s love, is more English than Italian, but the strong interest in the speaker’s own psychology is typical of either case. In nineteenth-century Victorian England, the amatory sonnet sequence, which tells a long tale through a string of interconnected sonnets, experienced a revival for the first time since the Renaissance. There were similar amatory sequences written by Tennyson, Arnold, Clough, Meredith, Christina Rossetti and her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Most of these works, like Sonnets from the Portuguese, dealt with a fresh love growing out of a defeatist, fatalistic mood. The declaration of love that today’s readers are given in “How Do I Love Thee?” is actually the culmination of forty-two poems’ growing understanding of the speaker’s feelings, which might make it seem a little too bold, too definite, to us, just as walking in at the end of a detective movie and not seeing the trail of clues might make us think the detective seems a little over-sure. The Italian sonnet, then, gave Barrett Browning a dry, easy form to work within, a tradition of self-reflective love poetry, and the then-current fad of stringing one poem after another to create a running narration.
Finally, modern readers who find Barrett Browning’s thoughts on love too intellectual need to look at the ways in which critics have called her earlier works just the opposite: too loose. A good representative is George Saintsbury, who said in a 1923 essay that her “ear for poetry was probably the worst on record in the case of a person having any poetic power whatsoever,” going on to quote a case where she rhymed “body” with “ruddy.” Other critics were more offended with her inexact use of double rhymes, which count on two syllables in each word to sound the same but which, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s works, often do not. She was aware that the practice was unconventional and unpopular: “I have a theory about double rhymes for which I shall be attacked by the critics ...” she wrote to her husband, examining the precedents for writers of English to break rules now and again, ending her analysis with “(a)nd do you tell me ... why you rhyme(as everybody does, without blame from anybody) ’ given’ to ’ heaven,’ when you object to my rhyming ’ remember’ to ’ chamber’ ?” Exactly why the critics of her inexact rhymes found them so entirely offensive is not clear, but she certainly did offend. Her detractors would probably support a poet’s right to bend sound a little but claim that Barrett Browning’s particular use of poetic license created ugliness where beauty belonged(Saintsbury again: “These things are horrible and heartrending. They make the process of reading Mrs. Browning something like that of eating with a raging tooth —a process of alternate expectation and agony.”) Another theory that has often been raised is that critics do not accept or respect such Impropriety from a Victorian lady like Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She had the unfortunate position of writing at a time of change, when gender roles were clearly defined but a woman could still aspire to great artistic achievement. It is clear to us that at least some critics thought that she was able to stick to a strict rhyme scheme, that such rigid discipline was only possible for the male mind. Whether she respected such criticism or not, it would be understandable if she tended to be a little more formal and conservative when writing Sonnets from the Portuguese.
One of the great ironies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry is that millions of readers(as well as non-readers) are aware of the poem that begins “How do I love thee?” but that the poem itself has very little influence on the modern reader. We take its formality, its stiffness, to be signs that what it has to say about love is more rhetorical than true: generations of critics, however, have pestered Barrett Browning’s works for being rhetorically unsound as well. Throughout the history of art, the border between structure and freedom has shifted almost daily. Today, we are closer to valuing freedom, while during Victorian times the line was drawn deep in structure’s territory. Someday the line will shift to exactly where Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote from, and “Sonnet 43,” will represent the perfect balance.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
This essay delves into the meaning and nature of the 44 love sonnets written by Elizabeth Barrett during her courtship to Robert Browning.
During her courtship by Robert Browning in 1845-6 Elizabeth Barrett wrote a sequence of 44 love poems. They were not initially intended for publication and she was reticent even to show them to him, yet when she presented the poems to him in 1849, it was he who insisted on their publication in her Poems of 1850, suggesting the title Sonnets from the Portuguese partly to disguise their personal nature.
With hindsight, the private character of the Sonnets is clearly discernible. Indeed there are moments when the specificity of reference becomes embarrassing, as in the opening line of Sonnet XXXIII: “Yes, call me by my pet name!” Despite this, however, the work rewards critical attention, for the poet writes about love from a series of perspectives which subvert the conventional fixities of social and poetic mores. In adopting the form of the Petrarchan sonnet she entered that established tradition of amatory poetry in which, ordinarily, a male speaker addresses a silent and absent female other. Yet Browning’s treatment of the relationship between the self and the beloved departs significantly from conventional formulae. The characteristic stasis of courtly love-poetry is replaced by a series of protean shifts as the speaker, and her addressee, are represented in a constantly mobile relation.
Browning’s speaker is at times positioned in the standard pose of humble minstrel, a “wandering singer” whose status is lowly beside the “princely” other. This gesture of subordination, however, can collapse into an historically typical self-effacement when the singer appears to lose the will to perform. In Sonnet II she locates herself in the feminine position of one who listens rather than expostulates and in the 13th she pleads with her Page 245 | Top of Articlelover to allow the “silence of ... womanhood” to act as proof of her feeling. If such reticence suggests an adherence to Victorian constructions of femininity, so too does the censoring of physical response that occurs in Sonnet XIII.
Juxtaposed with this, however, runs another impulse that articulates and registers emphatically the speaker’s right to address. “i love thee ... mark! ... i love thee” (Sonnet X). Such exclamatory confidence is complemented on other occasions when the other is unequivocally commanded and instructed. In the 14th sonnet, the speaker refuses to become the simultaneously exalted and subordinate object of patriarchal construction. “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,’.” In place of this, she recommends the abstract concept of love “for love’s sake only,” gesturing towards the possibility of equality in sexual relations—a desire that also emerges in the representation of ungendered souls in Sonnet XXII.
The speaker is neither consistently passive nor persistently active and the other is similarly unstable. Although he acts as a muse, he is also a poet, with a poet’s need for inspirational aid, and the speaker frequently expresses her willingness to transform herself from writer to muse for his benefit. Such interchangeability upsets the traditional structure of amatory verse, as both parties become lovers and loved ones.
The speaker’s unorthodox recognition of the other as an autonomous being alerts her to the dangers of her own narcissistic desire. In Sonnet XXIX, she appeals to her lover to “Renew thy presence,” keenly sensitive that her fantasised projections potentially overwhelm and obscure him. Such trans-subjective awareness also predisposes the speaker to view herself as an object. She describes the effect that the turbulence of emotional commitment has on her physical appearance in Sonnet XII, where “this very love ... when rising up from breast to brow, / Doth crown me with a ruby large enow / To draw men’s eyes.” If this designates a particularly feminine self-awareness, so too does the portrayal of the self as an ageing woman who does not conform to culturally prescribed standards of beauty(Sonnet XVIII). These representations add a further dimension to the poems, as the speaker views herself as the object of another’s perceptions. Hence the speaker’s attitude is complex. Self-deprecation jostles against proud affirmation, melancholy runs hand in hand with joy.
The opening line of the penultimate and best-known sonnet, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” might be seen as central to the sequence as a whole. For it is precisely these “ways,” or multiple possibilities, within the love-relationship that constitutes Browning’s achievement in Sonnets from the Portuguese. The fact that the poems were not originally intended for a public readership allowed her to explore with an unusual honesty “how” she loved and such an enabling freedom incurred the revision of a long-standing poetic tradition. In the best of the Sonnets the poet neither simply conforms to nor straightforwardly resists conventional figurings of subject/object, female/male relations. Rather, she destabilises them, depriving any one amatory structure of absolute or final authority.
Source: Kathryn Burlinson, “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd edition, Vol. 3, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991 pp. 1861-62.
Phillipson, John,’ “How Do I Love Thee?’ —An Echo of St. Paul,” in Victorian Newsletter, No. 22, Fall, 1962, p. 22.
Radley, Virginia, in her Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972.
For Further Study
Altick, Richard D., Victorian People and Ideas, New York: Norton, 1973.
An overview of Victorian culture and history, presented thematically as a companion to the literature of the age.
Leighton, Angela, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1986.
An analysis of Browning’s life and work with focus on feminist criticism.
Levine, Richard A., editor, The Victorian Experience: The Poets, Ohio University Press, 1982.
A collection of recent academic essays addressing trends in Victorian poetry.