In January of 1845, Elizabeth Barrett was a world-famous poet, admired by many and guaranteed a place in the canon of English poets. That same year, her physician doubted she would live through the winter. Wracked by physical and psychological pain, Elizabeth Barrett agreed. Then she received a letter.
The letter was from Robert Browning, a poet not nearly as famous as she, although she had praised his poetry in a recent publication. He was six years younger than her and said he did not believe in romantic love. His letter was full of admiration:
I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett…
But soon, audaciously, moved to more extravagant declarations:
I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart– and I love you too…
Naturally Elizabeth felt some concern, her own admiration for Robert notwithstanding. They had not yet met, and she had received plenty of fan mail from others before this. Furthermore, she did not want to be loved for her accomplishments, but simply for her. But perhaps most importantly, Elizabeth’s life could not accommodate romance. She was frozen in grief from the death of her dearest brother—a death she considered her own fault—and had been forbidden to marry by her domineering father. She spent what she assumed were her last days in grief, waiting for death. Robert’s declarations, while flattering, felt too little, too late. She was not worthy, nor was she capable, of such love.
I love you because I love you.
–Robert, October, 1845
The first moment in which I seemed to admit to myself in a flash of lightning the possibility of your affection for me being more than dream-work…the first moment was that when you intimated…that you cared for me not for a reason, but because you cared for me.
–Elizabeth, November, 1845
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only
Despite her doubts, after an initial secret meeting (Elizabeth’s father forbade her seeing any members of the opposite sex), they continued to correspond via letters. Robert proved himself to her, and Elizabeth proved to herself that perhaps she had more strength and vitality than anyone believed.
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.’
After about ten months of correspondence, Elizabeth took control of her life and left her father’s house to elope with Robert. They lived together another 15 years and had a son before Elizabeth died in 1861.
I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange
My near sweet view of Heaven, for earth with thee!
Three years into their marriage, a trembling Elizabeth threw a manuscript of sonnets onto Robert’s desk and left the room. The manuscript contained some 44 poems written over the course of their courtship that she had been too embarrassed to show him before. The poems were so close, so intimate, such clear echoes of their relationship, that she couldn’t bear until then to give Robert the chance to reject them.
[I] avoid writing that I love & love & love again my own, dearest love—because of the cuckoo song of it…
–Robert, December, 1845
Say over again, and yet once over again,
That thou dost love me. Though the word repeated
Should seem ‘a cuckoo song’…
Elizabeth need not have worried. She was, after all, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the greatest poets of her age. The sonnets were incredible and beautiful and intimate and real. They were perhaps her best work. Robert convinced her to add them to the second edition of her Poems. She agreed only because she could disguise them. Calling upon a private nickname and an established convention of poets as translators, they named the sequence Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Friends, that is the true love story of the greatest sequence of love poems written in English. I hope it’s given you a fresh perspective that will allow you to approach the most famous of these poems anew, a poem whose first lines are as perfect and as tired as the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth.
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 candlelight.
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.
Readers: I love EBB’s poetry, not only the Sonnets, so I may be a bit biased. What other poet do you think can challenge my claim that this is the greatest sequence of love poems written in English? Shakespeare, perhaps?
Finally, for those who are intrigued: check out Julia Markus’s work on the Brownings (her biography of the two, Dared and Done, and her edition of the Sonnets “illuminated by the Brownings’ love letters”) for further reading.