Sonnets from the Portuguese--Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The acquaintance of most with this cycle of sonnets is confined to a single line--oft quoted and oft played upon: "How do I love thee, let me count the ways. . . "  Most have not gone to the effort to find this entire poem (number 43 in the series) nor to understand the poem in its context--the lives of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning.  Often it is sandwiched between ornate covers with disturbingly mawkish imagery and a vaguely threatening Helen Steiner Rice sort of presentation.  The prospect, from that one line alone is daunting--shall we enter the den of the grey-eyed harridan who composed this in her draughty loft?

But make no mistake about it--this is one of the most powerful sonnet cycles in the language.  Only Shakespeare, and perhaps Rossetti have written more powerful poems--and Shakespeare's is not a single cycle to an end--just a sequence of some of the most beautiful poetry written. The poetry is not in that single line, but all the way through, and it is lithe, and taut, and strong, and living.  But, perhaps, the best evidence is the poetry itself, and here, setting the tone for the sequence is the first poem:

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was 'ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove, ---
'Guess now who holds thee?' --- 'Death,' I said. But, there,
The silver answer rang, --- 'Not Death, but Love.'

 This poem encapsulates what the series is about--the surprise of love stealing upon one, when the weight of grief and life and all the sundry sorrows attendant upon making a way in the world summons one to merely wait for death.  Originally titled "Death or Love,"  this poem moves the reader with its picture of a woman who has thought herself long past desiring and who has spent these latter years in sorrow greater than anyone should have to bear alone, finding suddenly that there is someone who is interested in her for herself--that when she thought herself in thrall to death, she turns to find that the master is love.  "Guess now who holds thee?"  And the expected response is not the right one.  For the master now is love.  What is wonderful about this poem, and about many in the sequence is that while it has a profoundly personal sense for the poet, the language that encases that sense allows for a broader interpretation--in this case a distinctly Christian understanding of who the master of Life really is. 

The edition of the Sonnets that I was able to read was edited by William S. Peterson and Julia Markus.  Their particular service to the reader is to supply some of the correspondence between the then unmarried Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett--correspondence that echoes the theme and the language of some of the  poems.

It is interesting to note that Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not share these poems as they were composed.  Nor were the offered as a wedding gift to her husband.  Indeed, it took three long years for her to summon up the courage to share them with Robert Browning.   And it is instructive to share one of those excerpts that the editors offer to us:

from a Letter from Robert Browning to Julia Wedgwood (1864--three years after Elizabeth's death)

Yes, that was a strange, heavy crown, that wreath of Sonnets, put on me one morning, unawares, three years after it had been twined--all this delay, because I happened early to say something against putting one's loves into verse: then again, I said something else on the other side, one evening at Lucca,--and next morning she said hesitatingly "Do you know I once wrote some poems about you?"-- and then --"There they are, if you care to see them," and there was the little Book I have here--with the last Sonnet dated two days before our marriage. How I see the gesture, and hear the tones,--and for the matter of that, see the window at which I was standing, with the tall mimosa in front, and little church-court to the right. Afterward the publishing them was trough me--int he interest of the poet, I chose that they should be added to the other works, not minding the undue glory to me, if the fact should become transparent: there was a trial at covering it a little by leaving out one sonnet [Sonnet 42] which had plainly a connexion with her former works: but it was put in afterwards, when people chose to pull down the mask which, in old days, people used to respect at a masquerade. But I never cared. "The Portuguese"--purposely an ambiguous title---was that Caterina who left Camoens the riband from her hair.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was at one time considerably more famous than her husband--one of the tremendous and powerful poets of the Victorian Age.  The strength of this series is evidence of the strength of her best poetry and it deserves a wider readership and a greater appreciation than this day of irony and subversiveness can deploy.



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