Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not title the forty-four individual poems in the Sonnets from the Portuguese; however, the first phrase of the first line of Sonnet 14, “If thou must love me,” serves as a kind of title. As such, it indicates immediately that the sonnet will be framed as an argument, using an “ifthen” structure. Moreover, the word “must” hints that the poem will be more complex than a straightforward question about whether the lover being addressed indeed loves the poem’s speaker.
The sonnet begins with the poet talking directly to her lover. She says to him that if he must love her, he should love her only for the sake of love and for no other reason. She says “only” to emphasize that feeling to the utmost. She says not to love her for the cheer of her smile, nor for beauty or the singular nature of her countenance. He should not love her for her voice or for what she says, nor for a special frame of mind that “falls in well” with his. Do not love me for any of these reasons, she tells him, because they could all change over time—or his perceptions of them could change—and the love they have may therefore wither. She adds, do not love her because she needs to be loved and relies on the comfort and support he provides her. She says, love her for “love’s sake.” Love her because of love and because of the eternal quality of love on earth.
Taken out of the context of the other sonnets in Sonnets from the Portuguese, the idea of loving for only the idea of love itself seems to be confusingly circular. Yet the reader does come away with a strong sense of the fear of loss that underlies the poem. Barrett Browning married the dashing but somewhat footloose Robert Browning in 1846; for doing so, her father disowned her—for the rest of his life, he would not even communicate with his daughter. Furthermore, her brother had died in a boating accident in 1840. It is understandable that she would yearn for permanence and would worry about the loss of Browning’s love after the losses and separations in her life.