Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The main theme of Sonnet 14 is the eternal nature of love. It is not eternal, says the poet, if one lover loves the other for earthly, temporal reasons. These reasons she details in lines 3-12. Earthly reasons fade, as do human beings. Love itself does not fade and die, she states. Therefore, her lover should love her, if he must love her, for the sake of love only.

A crucial distinction here is the word “must.” It is this word that casts the poem in the direction it ascends—toward “eternity.” For example, if the poem had begun “If thou love me,” one would find a different theme altogether. The poem would be about whether the lover truly loves. His love would be called into question, no doubt, even before the poet were to plead for a certain kind of love.

“Must,” however, implies that the lover already loves the poet but that he does not have to. The “must” also suggests a different kind of vulnerability on the poet’s part. Fate has a role here; she recognizes that if her lover “must” love her, if it is fated in the manner of a “must,” then she wants him to love her for “love’s sake only.” She wants the love to be lifted out of the realm of human passion into the realm of eternal, heavenly passion. One thinks of the ending of the Sonnets from the Portuguese’s most famous poem, number 43 (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”) that ends, “I shall but better love thee after death.” The poet sees that if he must love her, it must be a love of eternal power.

This energy, then, becomes the power on which the love rests and through which it exists. To say the least, Barrett Browning has high expectations of her love. If she loses the love, she wants to lose for no less a reason than that the love could not attend to itself on its own course. It would fail because the lovers loved for less than ideal reasons—that is, for earthly and temporal reasons.