(Poem #591) Sonnet XIV
If thou must love me, let it be for nought Except for love's sake only. Do not say I love her for her smile--her look--her way Of speaking gently,--for a trick of thought That falls in well with mine, and certes brought A sense of ease on such a day-- For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may Be changed, or change for thee,--and love, so wrought, May be unwrought so. Neither love me for Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheek dry,-- A creature might forget to weep, who bore Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby! But love me for love's sake, that evermore Thou may'st love on, through love's eternity.
At first glance this seems to be a most curious love sonnet - one that consciously revokes the usual conventions of the genre, offering instead an abstract, almost philosophical vision of the emotion. It seems especially surprising when taken in the context of Elizabeth Barrett's love for Robert Browning, a love that gave rise to some of the most emotionally charged poetry ever written ... surely a passion that deep should be expressed in words more specific than these? To answer this question, it might be useful to look a bit more closely at the poem's compositional background. At the time of writing this poem, "[Elizabeth Barrett was unsure] what sort of a gift her heart would make to [Robert] Browning since she was not young (thirty-eight), six years an invalid, broken-spirited in guilt and sorrow... So for a long time Browning had to accede to her formula, urged in the Sonnets, that he loved her for nothing at all, just because he loved her" . Now the poem begins to make more sense - indeed, it takes on an almost heroic quality, in the way the poet denies her own feelings for the sake of the happiness of her beloved . Seen in this light, it's obvious why there are no elaborate conceits, no professions of undying love and eternal devotion; instead, Barrett and Browning are, in Donne's marvellous words, "by a love so much refined / That [their] selves know not what it is" . thomas.  Specifically, Barrett's masterpiece, the sequence of 'Sonnets from the Portuguese' , of which today's poem is the 14th.  Robert's nickname for Elizabeth was 'my little Portuguese', because she was dark.  http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/ebb/ebbio1.html  It might be argued that this is a misguided heroism or (even worse) a tawdry self-dramatization. In any case, that's more a personal judgement than a critical one.  poem #330 [Links] The most well-known of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sonnets from the Portuguese', and possibly the most anthologized love poem ever, is her famous 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways', which you can read at poem #269. This link also has a biography and some critical analysis. The complete 'Sonnets' can be found at [broken link] http://www.geocities.com/~spanoudi/poems/ebb01.html The Victorian Web has a wealth of resources on EBB: http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/ebb/browningov.html For another sonnet which seems to go against every rule in the book, read the Bard's glorious 'My Mistress' Eyes', Sonnet CXXX, archived at poem #44.