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Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese: Sonnet 43 and Sonnet 44

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 43: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"

Sonnet 43, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," is the most widely anthologized sonnet from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sequence titled Sonnets from the Portuguese.

It is likely the many high school or college graduates remember that line but may have remained unaware that it is only #43 from its accompanying sequence of 43 other sonnets.

The sonnet is a Petrarchan sonnet as are all of the other sonnets in the sequence. In the octave, the speaker is musing about how much she loves her belovèd, and she asks the question, "How do I love thee?"

Then the speaker proceeds to answer the question, so the reader becomes aware that the speaker is not literally addressing her belovèd, but she is addressing the thought or perhaps even an image of that belovèd. In the sestet, the speaker counts three definite ways and one possible way that she will love him throughout eternity.

Sonnet 43: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"

H0w 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 candle-light.
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.

Reading of Sonnet 43

Commentary on Sonnet 43: "H0w do I love thee? Let me count the ways"

Sonnet 43 remains the most famous and widely read sonnet of the sequence.

First Quatrain: Rhetorical Question

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.

The speaker asks an obvious rhetorical question that requires only her feeling to fill out; thus, she continues, "Let me count the ways." She loves him with all her soul, as that soul strives for an idealism that has to be left up to faith.

The soul searches in all directions through "depth and breadth and height" for this idealism, which this speaker calls "the ends of Being and ideal Grace."

Second Quatrain: Love and All Levels

I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

The speaker has begun with the sublime, ethereal level of her love by invoking how she loves her belovèd on the spiritual level. The speaker then brings herself quickly back to the mundane activities of daily life by saying that another way she loves him is through even the smallest daily act whether that act is performed during the daylight hours or during the night, "by sun and candle-light."

The speaker e asserts that her love for her belovèd is spontaneous and "freely" given; therefore, she loves him in the way mankind loves freedom and acts correctly in striving to secure and maintain that freedom. She then claims that her love is as pure as those who are humble when praised. In the octave, the speaker has signified four ways she loves her belovèd: spiritually, materially, "freely," and "purely."

First Tercet: All Encompassing Love

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

The speaker loves him with the same ardor that used to grip her when she faced difficulties, but this "passion" is tempered by the fact that that love is also similar to the love that childhood provided her, an opposite kind of emotion from the one that caused her "old griefs."

This love includes the polar opposites of fear and love, with love tempering the fear in a balanced and useful way.

The speaker also loves the belovèd with a kind of respect and admiration that she thought she had outgrown; this group of people could be a fairly large one, including friends, teachers, relatives, and even religious "saints," the term she uses.

But the key word is that she "seemed" to lose this love, but with her belovèd, that love is returned to her.

Second Tercet: Love Unto Eternity

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.

The next way she loves her belovèd she asserts in a breathless, almost ecstatic pronouncement: "— I love thee with the breath, / Smiles, tears, of all my life! —."

Placed between dashes, these terms then signal an emphasis of expression, this assertion captures the excitement and underscores the passion in the speaker’s claim, while it prepares the reader, or listener, for the last breathtaking claim that, "if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death."

So in the sestet, the speaker again professes four ways in which she loves the belovèd: with a passion of meeting former challenges but tempered by a childlike faith, with a kind of love she thought she had lost, and with her whole being. But most importantly for this speaker, she has faith that she will love this belovèd eternally.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 44: "Belovèd, thou hast brought me many flowers"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 44, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, is the final poem, which completes this remarkable sequence of love poems.

This sonnet finds the speaker musing on the flowers that her belovèd has brought to her. The speaker quickly transforms the physical blossoms into metaphysical blooms that symbolize the lovers' bond.

After all the handwringing of self-doubt that has plagued the speaker throughout this sequence, she must now find a way to assure both herself and her belovèd that her mind set has transformed itself from the dire negative to a shining positive.

The speaker must show her fiancé that they are bound together with an exceptional love. She must also make it clear that she understands the strong ties they now possess.

The speaker's metaphoric comparison of the love gifts of physical flowers and the symbolic flowers that she has created from her own heart soil will remain an eternal reminder to both herself and her belovèd as they travel the road of marriage together.

Sonnet 44: "Belovèd, thou hast brought me many flowers"

Belovèd, thou hast brought me many flowers
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers.
So, in the like name of that love of ours,
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too,
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew
From my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers
Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue,
And wait thy weeding; yet here’s eglantine,
Here’s ivy!—take them, as I used to do
Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colors true,
And tell thy soul their roots are left in mine.

Reading of Sonnet 44: "Belovèd, thou hast brought me many flowers"

Commentary on Sonnet 44

The final sonnet in the sequence assures her belovèd that she has finally accepted his gift of love.

First Quatrain: A Gift of Flowers

Belovèd, thou hast brought me many flowers
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers.

The speaker muses about the flowers that her belovèd has given her during summer. To her it seems that the flowers have remained as vibrant indoors in her "close room" as they were outside in the "sun and showers."

These miraculous flowers seem to have remained healthy and glowing even during winter. The speaker then insists that they "grew / In this close room" and that they did not miss "the sun and showers."

Of course, the physical flowers are just the motivation for the musing, which transforms the physical blooms into flowers of a metaphysical sort—those that have impressed images upon her soul, beyond the image on the retina.

Second Quatrain: Sonnets as Flower-Thoughts

So, in the like name of that love of ours,
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too,
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew
From my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers

Thus, the speaker commands her belovèd to "take back these thoughts which here unfolded too." She is referring to her sonnets, which are her flower-thoughts given to her belovèd to honor their love.

The speaker affirms that she has plucked her sonnet-flowers "from [her] heart’s ground." And the creative speaker has composed her tributes on "warm and cold days."

The weather in the speaker's heart and soul was always equal to producing fine blossoms for her loved one. As the speaker basked in his love, the flower "beds and bowers" produced these poems with floral fragrance and hues.

First Tercet: Correcting Her Clumsiness

Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue,
And wait thy weeding; yet here’s eglantine,
Here’s ivy!—take them, as I used to do

The speaker then inserts her usual self-deprecatory thoughts, admitting that her floral efforts are surely, "overgrown with bitter weeds and rue," but she gladly submits them for him to "weed" as needed.

The speaker's gifted and talented belovèd can correct her clumsiness. She names two of her poems "eglantine" and "ivy" and commands him to "take them," as she used to take his gifts of flowers, and probably gifts of his own poems to her as well.

Second Tercet: In His Care

Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colors true,
And tell thy soul their roots are left in mine.

The speaker commands her belovèd to safeguard her pieces so "they shall not pine." In his care, she will also not pine. And the poem will "instruct [his] eyes" to the true feelings she bears for him.

The speaker's poems will henceforth remind him that she feels bound to him at the soul. Soul qualities have always been more important to this speaker than physical and mental qualities.

The "colors true" of this speaker's sonnets will continue to pour forth her love for her belovèd and "tell [his] soul their roots are left in [hers]." Each sonnet will reinforce their love and celebrate the life they will make together.

The Brownings

The Brownings

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes