Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
Sonnets from the Portuguese:
A Celebration of Love

(St. Martin's Press, 1986)

Sonnets from the Portuguese is one of my favorite collections of love poetry. The passion and fire of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, at first so unsure of her worthiness of Robert's love, slowly grows to accept the depth of emotion within her heart. These poems express that fire and passion in a masterful use of the sonnet form. Since the sonnet is the traditional "love poem" form, Elizabeth's use of the sonnet shows both her traditional poetic discipline and her emotional release of long-restrained feelings. These poems are written from the heart.

The beginning poems show Elizabeth's melancholy and her self-perceived disassociation from love. She responds to Robert's overtures slowly, letting her affection grow over time. She wonders at her newfound love and marvels at each feeling as she experiences it. Elizabeth also admonishes Robert to be certain in his love, in Sonnet XIV: "If thou must love me, let it be for nought / Except for love's sake only. Do not say / 'I love her smile -- her look -- her way / of speaking gently'...." She acknowledges that certain attractions can fade, especially physical charms, and is certain to let Robert know that true love cannot be based on such fleeting attributes.

Sonnet XVIII apparently accompanied a lock of her hair as a token of her love. Elizabeth had never given away any love-locks, so this was a large step for her in the relationship. This may seem strange to us, but the idea of having a piece of one's beloved always with you is an old concept. The Victorian era is famous for hair jewelry, incorporating this idea into beautiful brooches, rings and pendants.

She writes also to Robert of how he has changed her life. In Sonnet XXVI, Elizabeth described herself as a dreamer, not living in the "real world." Robert, however, brought her more into the present and gave her something much more substantial than her secluded fancies. This is one of the more frequently anthologized sonnets in this sequence, though certainly not the most famous.

In other sonnets, she describes how their clandestine love grows. They call each other by pet names, she eagerly awaits his letters and visits, and offers to give up her home and family to be with him. My favorite, Sonnet XXXVIII, describes their first kisses. First, on the hand, which she felt transformed her hand, and remained more visible than a physical ring. The second kiss was on the forehead "...half missed / Half falling on the hair." Finally, their third kiss was upon the lips, when she finally called him "My love, my own." This was a fitting reply to her declaration of love.

The penultimate poem, Sonnet XLIII, is the famous "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Probably the most anthologized of her works, it is best appreciated after reading through the entire sonnet sequence. It describes the entirety of Elizabeth's love for Robert, and I consider it to be the epitome of her expression of love.

The St. Martin's edition is a lovely gift edition, including illustrations, although there are many fine editions available.

[ by Beth Derochea ]

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