This is such an enjoyable series to work on . It is made more poignant for me at the moment as I spend a week away from my husband, ostensibly writing ‘Shell-Shocked Britain’ for Pen and Sword Books. Perhaps, when it comes to the end of September and the manuscript is due to be delivered I will regret spending an hour with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but I don’t think so. I have already written more than 1000 words of my book and this is a gentle break of an hour or so.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born on March 6, 1806 in Durham, England. Her father made a fortune in Jamaican sugar plantations, buying a 500 acre estate in the Malvern Hills where Elizabeth led a privileged childhood, developing a precocious interest in literature. She was encouraged by Mr Barrett who called her the ‘poet laureate of Hope End’ and she became a devotee of Shakespeare and Milton and a passionate admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft and her ideas. However, her father suffered financial losses requiring the sale of the house at Hope End and they moved, eventually, to Wimpole Street in London. Elizabeth suffered increasingly poor health after the move. She became reclusive and frail, seeing few people. Her reputation as a writer was, however, already bringing her to public attention and by 1844 she was feted by literary circles and increasingly by the wider public.
Her reputation today is enhanced by the romantic story behind her marriage to fellow poet Robert Browning, who was encouraged to write to her following the publication of her first volume of poetry and whom she first met in 1845. It is one of the most famous courtships in literature. At 39 she considered herself an invalid, and could not believe that Browning, six years her junior and a ‘man of the world’ loved her as much as he said he did. Over the next two years she worked through her doubts in the series ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’. Browning, though, was genuine in his devotion, marrying her and taking her to Italy.
One of the most popular of the long series starts ‘How do I love thee? let me count the ways’, (Sonnet XLIII) but that is not the one I have chosen to include in this series. I most admire Sonnet XIV, where Elizabeth speaks to her love of her concerns that he adores her only for those reasons that can most easily fade – her smile, her way of speaking or for pity (as she says, being loved could make her so happy that ‘A creature might forget to weep, who bore/Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!’) It has a simple message – love me for love’s own sake and then love will endure.
Sonnets from the Portuguese 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 pleasant ease on such a day”—
For these things in themselves, Belovëd, 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 cheeks 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 was frail, suffering from ill-health that has defied proper diagnosis but which was almost certainly exacerbated by the use of opiates to ease her discomfort. But the romantic story survives to the end of her life, in 1861, when she died in the arms of her husband, ‘smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl’s. … Her last word was—… ‘Beautiful’