Sonnets: If We Knew Not the Genesis. . .

If we did not know the genesis of the Sonnets from the Portuguese, we would be tempted to read them quite a different way--as in today's example, following closely on the heels of the last two.

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Indeed this very love which is my boast,
And which, when rising up from breast to brow,
Doth crown me with a ruby large enow
To draw men's eyes and prove the inner cost,---
This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,
I should not love withal, unless that thou
Hadst set me an example, shown me how,
When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed,
And love called love. And thus, I cannot speak
Of love even, as a good thing of my own:
Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,
And placed it by thee on a golden throne,---
And that I love (O soul, we must be meek!)
Is by thee only, whom I love alone.
 Consider the poem without Robert Browning.  Who then might Elizabeth be writing to here.  She says that she would not know love had she not been taught love and had love not been called love. And she notes "And thus, I cannot speak//Of love even, as a good thing of my own:"  In this way she nods toward both biblical teaching and toward the scholastics who taught that no good work is the work of any human being alone and unaided.  That any merit belongs to God, and indeed "Thy soul hath snaatch up mine all faint and weak, //And place it by thee on a golden throne. . ."  certainly seems to bear this out--even as it is unequivocally and completely humanly about Robert Browning.

Divine purpose often has a human agency.  The Hindus recognized this in the concept of an avatar or a physical presence of the divine.  This is what Elizabeth embues Robert with--the divine quality of teaching her to love and to know what love is.  "And that I love (O soul, we must be meek!)//Is by thee only, whom I love alone."  Indeed--there is no love without someone to teach us love and to lead us in love. 

Again, these poems beg rigorous reading--not this light touch that I give the and pass on.  But a light touch is better than that they remain untouched by all.  It's a shame that they've (the poems) been coopted by the Society of Maudlin Works, because these are not.  These are not a simple bridal gift, nor are they the stuff of greeting cards and light verse.  As I've said before and continue to maintain, they form an intricate web of discovery, explanation, and understanding.  And as such they stand up under considerable scrutiny.  They are poems for our time, when we seem to have forgotten (as a society, at least) what love is and what love means.


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