"And wilt thou have me fashion into speech. . . :

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

And wilt thou have me fashion into speech
The love I bear thee, finding words enough,
And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough,
Between our faces, to cast light on each?---
I drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach
My hand to hold my spirit so far off
From myself---me---that I should bring thee proof
In words, of love hid in me out of reach.
Nay, let the silence of my womanhood
Commend my woman-love to thy belief,---
Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,
And rend the garment of my life, in brief,
By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,
Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.

Mrs. Browning was more or less forbidden by her father to see Robert.  She saw him nevertheless and they carried on a courtship by correspondence and furtive meeting.  But Elizabeth also carried with her a great many burdens and wounds and while she knew she was wooed and she knew that she was loved, she found it difficult to acknowledge this and find it within herself.  She also knew with a certainty that however wooed she would never be able to give in and marry.  The whole sonnet sequence is a matter of convincing herself that (1) she was loved, (2) she could feel love and return it, (3) she was worthy of love, and (4) she could get married despite the restrictions she was hemmed about with.
In some sense, this sequence speaks to anyone who has ever doubted the love they may have felt--to anyone who feels unworthy of that love.  In short, to anyone who breathes, because it is a rare person who doesn't have moments of thinking that the object of devotion is far above oneself and is even aware of our distant admiration and longing.  The skill with which Mrs. Browning accomplishes this task is stunning and worthy of more than a moment's reflection.  Most of us would dissolve into the mawkish and maudlin.  But even in the most slippery and difficult of these poems--they are far out of reach of the awkwardness of youth--their speech is the speech of mature love that is afraid and hidden.  One is reminded of the power of Gerard Manley Hopkins as he proclaims that his heart "was stirred by a bird."  A similar sort of spirit pervades these sonnets that recount the still, small movements of love that accumulate into irresistible action.

You still haven't read them?  Go, find a Penguin Edition so you don't need to be embarrassed by carrying it around--and read these--you really will be glad that you spent the time.   And then you can come back and tell me what you have found, because I well know that my reflections are not deep and profound--they are mere appreciations that I hope will stir some to go and indulge in a little poetry.


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