Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” has nothing to do with Portuguese or translations therefrom, and everything to do with Browning’s attempt, on behalf of ardent lovers the world over, to put into words what they often experience as the overwhelming, uniquely frustrating desire to bottle the wind, capture a star, cavort with the moon, and fully articulate the welter of emotions coursing through them at the sound, sight, touch and smell of their beloveds.
“There are no words…” lovers often say (if they are lucky), trailing off as they rock and roll, like an ocean liner atop roiling seas, with the emotion that both demands and makes impossible their word-bound expression. But Barrett was a poet of prodigious gifts, a rich internal life no doubt bolstered by her longtime sickliness from age 15 with an undiagnosed spinal condition, and the great good fortune to attract the attention of the poet Robert Browning, who wrote her a fan letter in January, 1845 that began,
“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing. Since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me…I can give a reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought; but in this addressing myself to you—your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart—and I love you too.”
Barrett, 38 at the time and six years Browning’s senior, had been confined mostly to her room for the better part of two decades, where she had been writing poetry of some renown on the family estate under a domineering father. Startled but responsive to Browning’s altogether forward declaration of interest in her that had come out of the blue with the morning’s mail, she wrote back the very next day. Her letter concludes with this paragraph:
“I am writing too much,—and notwithstanding that I am writing too much, I will write of one thing more. I will say that I am your debtor, not only for this cordial letter and for all the pleasure which came with it, but in other ways, and those the highest: and I will say that while I live to follow this divine art of poetry, in proportion to my love for it and my devotion to it, I must be a devout admirer and student of your works. This is in my heart to say to you—and I say it.”
It is not difficult to grasp what would divine from this first exchange. Regular correspondence over the subsequent five months resulted in his visiting her, with the die quickly cast for what would become perhaps the most elevated literary relationship the world has ever known.
Central to that relationship’s expression were the Sonnets from the Portuguese, a series of 44 love poems that Elizabeth wrote for Robert from 1845-46 but which she did not show him until 1849. The volume’s title was intentional misdirection, decided upon by both of them in order to give the ardor expressed therein a cloak of anonymity.
Elizabeth had harbored no intention of publishing them, but Robert knew they must be part of a larger gift, a veritable valentine to the world. So he urged her to do so. All of us should be most glad she assented.
The sonnets are all available online, as is the entirety of the couple’s correspondence over the remaining years of their partnership, which ended with Elizabeth’s death in 1861 at age 55. Robert recorded it thusly:
“Then came what my heart will keep till I see her again and longer—the most perfect expression of her love to me…in a few minutes she died in my arms, her head on my cheek…Her last word was, ‘ ‘Beautiful.’”
Before then, however, came this most extraordinary compendium of the tension all lovers face in the giving over of the Self to an Other. It is a decision, if it even qualifies as such, that carries the risks of immersion, of extending and expressing oneself beyond previous limits in the trust it will lead to expansion and a greater wholeness rather than eclipse. Elizabeth gets at this challenge most acutely in the latter nine lines of Sonnet #1:
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 “mystic shape” reflected no gentle beckoning but instead a pull “backward by the hair,” the firm, unyielding hold of which she surmises will lead to “Death” of the Self that she had cultivated so assiduously over the years.
No, “Not Death,” comes the reply, “but Love.”
This will not be the only time Elizabeth struggles with the difference as she gives herself over to the Love she was so clearly ready for but which she long since, through the “sad years, the melancholy years,” had given up any chance of acquiring.
In #6, she intones:
Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life…
…And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine,
And sees within my eyes, the tears of two.
Why this encroachment on “individual life,” this response of God suddenly not to the person beseeching him but to the two people reflected in those beseeching eyes? Because:
The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul.
These lines above that begin #7 reflect what happens with love when we attune to its footsteps as it comes up to draw us “backward by the hair.” It is a dance of troublesome approach-avoidance, a descent toward a kind of holy madness, wherein:
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm.
Her trepidation on whether she can even do this immense emerging love enough justice continues in #9, as she calls to mind among the more famous lines of Jesus as he struggles with his fate in the garden:
Can it be right to give what I can give?
To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears
As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years…
I will not soil thy purple with my dust,
Nor breathe my poison on thy Venice-glass,
Nor give thee any love—which were unjust.
Beloved, I only love thee! let it pass.
It is nonsense, of course, that she wants him to leave. She is—more than a tad too dutifully—giving him an out, testing both her own openness to the in-breaking of this great passion flooding her heart and his willingness to take on the care of an older, mostly bedridden woman who had known in her previous life only tears rather than romance for anything but literature. (Notably, her health improved markedly upon the kindling-become-fire of their relationship, and she bore Robert a son in 1849, at the wholly remarkable age of 43.)
The tensions of love—its essential surrender, its risks of dependency, idolatry and subsuming of a Self that becomes diminished rather than transfigured in its wake—percolate in steady streams through the sonnets. But those streams course toward a greater encompassing river, heading ultimately to a sea more nourishing and teeming with life than anything previously imagined.
Here, in this penultimate Sonnet #43, Elizabeth reaches the state of tranquility to which her soul has been yearning all along. Immersed in a supreme moment of contemplation, in which all doubts are washed away, all tensions resolved, she considers the object of her devotion in sublime terms, an unadorned heart offering everything that it is and has ever longed to be, for all eternity.
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.
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