Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1850
Once upon a time in Italy, Robert Browning sat scrutinizing a poem in progress. As he plumbed the depths of his brain for the exact word to fit his meaning and his meter, he heard the quick pitter-patter of feet lightly descending the stairs. Before he could turn around, he felt the pressure of a hand on his shoulder, warning him not to look behind him. His wife slid her hand into his pocket, deposited a packet and fled. He saw only the swish of her skirt and a hint of crimson cheek through her thick hair as she retreated to a room of her own. Intrigued, and probably a bit aroused, Robert hastily pulled the papers from his pocket and became the first person to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Robert Browning had to convince Elizabeth (let’s call her EBB) to publish the poems. She was hesitant to allow the public to read the deeply personal love poems she wrote to her husband. So, they titled them Sonnets from the Portuguese and pretended that she discovered them and translated them. I think of them as EBB’s Goth Sonnets because she her tone is self-effacing and melancholy. She describes herself as a drooping, tragic, gloom-monster who was destined to a life of weeping misery until Robert Browning shined his brilliant, amethyst light on her.
I always want to call Robert Browning “Robert Barrett Browning,” because it seems logical for married poets to exchange names as well as aesthetic and intellectual ideas. Also, Elizabeth was older, wealthier, higher class and more professionally successful than her husband at the time of their marriage. But, ya know, gender issues.
Without those pesky gender issues EBB might have been named poet laureate over Tennyson. She was quite influential in her time, to the point that she influenced child labor laws. Through poetry. Poetry!
The most famous sonnet is number 43:
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 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.
The sonnets are all very similar. I recommend them to people who are looking for poetry that represents love in an optimistic light. Most poets like to write about sad, bitter, destructive, doomed, tragic love. Sonnets from the Portuguese conveys love as spiritually uplifting and healing. I know that doesn’t sound Goth, but the trick is that while EBB describes herself as sad, love is the light that lifts her up out of her sadness. So, yes these poems have notes of melancholy, but they still depict love positively.
You might like Sonnets from the Portuguese if:
- you like poems about love.
- you’re secretly Goth inside.
- you’re interested in real life romance between literary figures.
You might not like Sonnets from the Portuguese if:
- you have no time for self-deprecation.
- you’re just not that into sonnets.
Final thoughts: EBB was a talented poet. If you like poetry, you should read some of hers. Also, Valentine’s Day is coming up. There’s still time to embroider a sonnet onto a pillow for your loved one. Cuz who doesn’t love a pillow with a sonnet embroidered on it. (internal feminine rhyme, y’all)