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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 14: "If thou must love me, let it be for nought"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning masterfully employs the Petrarchan form in her classic sonnet sequence, her tribute to her belovèd husband.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 14: "If thou must love me, let it be for nought"

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 14, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, now graciously receives her suitor’s affection; however, she wishes to alert him to what she expects from their relationship. She, therefore, defines the nature of the love she expects the two to share.

Sonnet 14: "If thou must love me, let it be for nought"

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, 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 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 mayst love on, through love’s eternity.

Reading of Sonnet 14

Commentary

The speaker insists that her paramour love her only for the sake of love and not for any qualities that she possesses, such as her smile or the way she speaks.

First Quatrain: Remaining Tentative

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

The speaker's tentativeness remains even as she contemplates the joy of such a love relationship. Her feeling of procrastination is all she has to shield her heart if things should later go wrong. She signals the possibility of acceptance by saying, "If thou must love me," and not by the usual insulting phrase, if-you-really-love-me.

The simple, single term "must" heralds a change is on the horizon. It shows that she does realize the true nature of the man's love, even though she cannot bring herself to have complete faith that something in her nature might not spoil even such a true love.

The speaker asks pragmatically that he love her for love alone, and not for the physical, superficial qualities that so often attract lovers. She does not want her lover to be in love merely with her smile or the way she speaks.

Second Quatrain: Disdaining Superficiality

That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”—
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,

The speaker now unveils her reason for disdaining the superficial kind of attention often engaged in by lovers. Those qualities all too often provide "a trick of thought." Suppose her smile is pleasant to him one day but not the next. If he were fixated on that smile, she fears his love for her would suffer.

The speaker does not want her partner's love to be ruled by moods. She again supposes that if she offers him a kind glance but then later a melancholic sadness appears, that love might again be affected negatively. Her speech to him may also vary and not always delight him. She knows she cannot always engage in conversation that is filled only with pleasantries.

The speaker well understands that love founded on change is not a lasting, solid love. Thus, she instructs him that she knows that the physical is wont to change, but love should not. She wishes to make him know that she can only accept an unconditional love based on permanence—not change.

First Tercet: No Pity

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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

The speaker then offers a further demand that he not love her out of pity. She has often delved into the depths of her melancholy which has caused her to weep long and often. And if his love were tinged with sympathy for her sad lot, what would happen if were to "forget to weep"?

She fears that even if or when she likely becomes a happy woman, her lover would then have one less reason to love her, if he had based his love on giving the poor thing sympathy.

Second Tercet: Existence is Enough

Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.

It is very important to the speaker to make known to her belovèd that she wants to be loved for no other reason than that she exists. If loved because of physical attributes, or the mere fact that she has suffered and somehow deserves to be happy, true love could never exist under those influences.

Therefore, if her lover will do as she requests and just love her for "love's sake," she is confident that their love will remain "through love's eternity."

The Brownings

The Brownings

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are there any literary devices such as alliteration or metaphors in the poem "Sonnet 14" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

Answer: There is only a very small hint at personification in the lines, "Neither love me for / Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry." The word "pity" is infused with the agency of dabbing the tears from the cheek of the speaker. Otherwise, the poem achieves its marvelous beauty through a quite literal discourse.

Question: What is the rime scheme in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 14 from Sonnets from the Portuguese?

Answer: In all 44 poems in Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning employs the Petrarchan, also called the Italian, form of the sonnet.

Question: Does sonnet 14 have a rime scheme?

Answer: Yes, it does. Like the other 44 poems in Sonnets from the Portuguese, sonnet 14 plays out in the Italian form, also called the Petrarchan sonnet form.

Question: Why does the speaker suspect, "A creature might forget to weep"?

Answer: The speaker in Barrett Browning's sonnet 14 surmises that a person might forget to weep after having experienced a long period of comfort that had kept one from weeping.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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