The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

Sonnet 14 Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

What comes to mind immediately when reading Sonnet 14, “If thou must love me,” is the point of view. Sonnets are traditionally given to a perspective of the poet addressing another person, a “you.” The point of view is first-person singular, but its direction is entirely pointed at the other person—in this case, as in many, a lover. The reader is left out; that is, the speaker does not speak for the reader’s emotions in particular, nor does the reader, in particular, feel something in common with the “you.” Instead, one watches the psychological and emotional action unfold as one would watch a drama unfold. In Sonnets from the Portuguese, the drama is contained in a series or a sequence of sonnets that tells of the relationship between a man and a woman from the woman’s point of view.

Sonnet sequences had traditionally been written by men, who placed their beloveds on a pedestal. The sonnets written by fourteenth century Italian poet Petrarch to Laura epitomize these works. Here the situation is reversed, and a reading of the entire sequence allows the reader to consider this issue more fully. The point of view is one to another, woman to man—and the reader is simply the audience, watching. The effect is to present the actors in their emotional pitches.

The principal device of the poem is the contrast between reasons people fall in love, stay in love, or fall out of love with the utmost reason for being in love—love itself. Barrett Browning arranges the poem in a structure that emphasizes this contrast. For example, the poem’s frame is marked by the repetition of the phrase, “for love’s sake.” When one reads the phrase the second time, in the penultimate line of the poem, it is backed up by the argument Barrett Browning has made to her lover—an argument that readers have bought into by virtue of their role in the audience. The argument is, in a nutshell, that earthly desires for such things as beauty and lack of conflict should not override the eternal nature of love. She pleads with her lover to love her because love is eternal—hence, their love will be eternal.