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Sonnet XIV -- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

(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, Belov├Ęd, 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.
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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 [1]... 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" [3].

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 [4]. 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" [5].


[1] Specifically, Barrett's masterpiece, the sequence of 'Sonnets from the
Portuguese' [2], of which today's poem is the 14th.
[2] Robert's nickname for Elizabeth was 'my little Portuguese', because she
was dark.
[4] 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.
[5] poem #330


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]

The Victorian Web has a wealth of resources on EBB:

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.

65 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

suresh said...

well what do i say about this poem but way to go woman... elizabeth barret browning... well she is just a woman much ahead of her times as cliche as it sounds... she ids the woman who dared to venture into the patriarchal area of the elizabethan/petrarchan sonnets and did put in her terms of being loved and did she put them well! she is truly an epitome of the victorian woman... welll this woman has said it and said it in such a way that lyric writers even today talk about loving women is these terms...

Karutha Penne said...

she asks her lover to go beyond the smile, and the other physical objects of infatuation, to make their love more real and at the same time more simple. Its makes their love almost a third character in the poem.

posh posh said...

she a straning lady who knew what LOVE is. she explained how the man should do if he loves a lady and what he should avoid to keep their love real. she also belives in the afterlife love were if the man love the lady for love's sake both could love each other after death' so this will be the evidence of that the two couple are truly in love.

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