Poem of the week

Sonnets from the Portuguese, No 43, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

From its brilliantly unassuming beginning, Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 – better known for its opening line, “How do I love thee?” – unfolds into a merging of erotic and mystical experience that recalls Dante

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Late-found happiness … Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Every good sonnet strives to encompass the world in its grain of sand: occasionally, there’s an inner mass that defies all logic. It’s as if a Life had been written on the back of a postcard. This week’s poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning has that quality. It’s the penultimate sonnet in a sequence of 44, Sonnets from the Portuguese, the one that begins, “How do I love thee?”

The sonnets are not, of course, real translations. The title of the sequence is said to have come about because Robert Browning had admired one of Elizabeth’s earlier poems, Caterina to Camões. This poem was a dramatic monologue; that extrovert form that Browning was to make strikingly his own. The ruse of presenting her love poems as translations enabled Barrett Browning to explore freely what we can fairly assume to have been her own feelings – and, in 1850, to publish the results without embarrassment.

The anthologists aren’t always right in their tendency to single out certain poems at the expense of others by the same author, but the endless popularity of Sonnet 43 is understandable. It is less tortuously self-analytical than many others in the sequence. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth’s joy in her late-found happiness is mixed with reminders of early hardships, and the notional rejection the form seems to demand produces some heavily mournful Victorian postures in many of the sonnets. This poem also touches on the early sorrows, but only to pass lightly over them. “I love thee” the poem repeats, and the mood of that quiet, confident statement is reflected technically. Tightly structured, but simple enough to be memorable (few sonnets by any poet are so quickly memorised, the first few lines, at least), gradually spreading itself across space and time, Sonnet 43 nevertheless has a brilliantly unassuming beginning.

We open in medias res – in the middle of a conversation, in fact. It could be that this is simply the poet’s private conversation with herself. More likely, she wants us to feel the presence of the other person, the addressee. He has asked the question, and she is repeating it: “How do I love thee?” It’s a clever ploy, setting in train the answers that will form the poem. Perhaps it was a playful question, perhaps a serious one: how do you love me, how much do you love me, why do you love me are the kinds of question lovers ask, with varying degrees of emotion, all the way from carefree compliment-fishing to agonised desire for reassurance. The answers the poet gives are profoundly serious, of course: Barrett Browning is bringing her whole intelligence to bear on answering the question.

The poem’s unity is born of carefully arranged variety. From the grandest of spatial metaphors, the focus turns to the detail of “everyday’s most quiet need”: then it soars to the moral and political high ground with the insistent anaphora of lines seven and eight. The “passion put to use / In my old griefs” encapsulates the story of her earlier life, but holds it in check. It’s followed by a further push back through time, perhaps to “intimations of immortality” embodied in the “lost saints”. These are not left unreachably in the past, as for Wordsworth, but joyously recovered.

In rhythm and feeling, the poem, which began conversationally, progresses into an act of worship. It addresses a beloved almost as if he were God. It’s also a poem about the god-like fulfilment of loving. The merging of erotic and mystical experience might suggest Dante as a poetic model. That image of the soul “feeling out of sight / For the ends of being and ideal Grace” is a potent one in its very hesitation. As often, in this sonnet, abstract nouns are favoured to good effect, giving the reader space in which to translate them into imagery. My own image for these lines is a night sky, with its vanishing terraces of stars, and the enthralling if barely imaginable vision of the multiverse. A poem that begins with the idea of counting, and the desire for description as well as enumeration, “How do I love thee?” is really about the incalculable wonder of it all.

Sonnets from the Portuguese, XLIII

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.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/may/24/poem-of-the-week-barrett-browning