Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 14

Updated on June 18, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 14

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 14" from 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
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

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

Source

An Overview of Sonnets from the Portuguese

Robert Browning referred lovingly to Elizabeth as "my little Portuguese" because of her swarthy complexion—thus the genesis of the title: sonnets from his little Portuguese to her belovèd friend and life mate.

Two Poets in Love

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese remains her most widely anthologized and studied work. It features 44 sonnets, all of which are framed in the Petrarchan (Italian) form.

The theme of the series explores the development of the budding love relationship between Elizabeth and the man who would become her husband, Robert Browning. As the relationship continues to flower, Elizabeth becomes skeptical about whether it would endure. She muses on examines her insecurities in this series of poems.

The Petrarchan Sonnet Form

The Petrarchan, also known as Italian, sonnet displays in an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. The octave features two quatrains (four lines), and the sestet contains two tercets (three lines).

The traditional rime scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is ABBAABBA in the octave and CDCDCD in the sestet. Sometimes poets will vary the sestet rime scheme from CDCDCD to CDECDE. Barrett Browning never veered from the rime scheme ABBAABBACDCDCD, which is a remarkable restriction imposed on herself for the duration of 44 sonnets.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Sectioning the sonnet into its quatrains and sestets is useful to the commentarian, whose job is to study the sections in order to elucidate meaning for readers unaccustomed to reading poems. The exact form of all of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 44 sonnets, nevertheless, consists of only one actual stanza; segmenting them is for commentarian purposes primarily.

A Passionate, Inspirational Love Story

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets begin with a marvelously fantastic open scope for discovery in the life of one who has a penchant for melancholy. One can imagine the change in environment and atmosphere from beginning with the somber thought that death may be one's only immediate consort and then gradually learning that, no, not death, but love is on one's horizon.

These 44 sonnets feature a journey to lasting love that the speaker is seeking—love that all sentient beings crave in their lives! Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s journey to accepting the love that Robert Browning offered remains one the most passionate and inspirational love stories of all time.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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