Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Elizabeth Barrett Moulton (who became Elizabeth Barrett Browning) penned this series of poems after falling in love with Robert Browning. This was a complex relationship and one she knew her father would disapprove of. The sonnets capture the growing love between the two; therefore, the two principal characters are Elizabeth Barrett Moulton, narrating as herself and with her own voice, and the person on the receiving end of her words—her intended audience, Robert.
The Speaker, Moulton
The sonnets begin with Moulton's confusion about why she is even the object of love:
Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!Unlike our uses and our destinies. (Sonnet 3)
Initially, she tries to hold her emotions in check and remain rational. After all, she is keenly aware that her father will not approve of this union. She tries to reject Browning, saying,
Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall standHenceforward in thy shadow. (Sonnet 6)
These feelings are complex. Although she knows that falling in love with Browning will completely change her life with her family, she is drawn to him still. She wants him to leave her, and she simultaneously feels that any life without him would be a mere "shadow" of the life she could live. The two grow closer, and he begins to change her world. Life finds a "new rhythm" (Sonnet 7).
As the sonnets continue, Moulton grows more resolute in her love and longs to be with Browning when they are apart. She begins to imagine separating herself from her family, and she wonders if Browning will be able to provide all of the ordinary things that make her feel at home:
Shall I never missHome-talk and blessing and the common kissThat comes to each in turn, nor count it strange,When I look up, to drop on a new rangeOf walls and floors, another home than this? (Sonnet 35)
In Sonnet 43, Moulton's position is clear. Browning is the love of her life and the one who provides substance for her soul when everything else fails her. She cannot measure the depth or height of her love for him:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.I love thee to the depth and breadth and heightMy soul can reach, when feeling out of sightFor the ends of Being and ideal Grace.I love thee to the level of everyday’sMost quiet need, by sun and candlelight.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 useIn my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.I love thee with a love I seemed to loseWith 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 love she has found is infinite and eternal, and it is also eternally captured in this series of sonnets.
The Speaker's Beloved, Browning
Although he only appears as the "you" in this series of sonnets, we do learn much about Browning through Moulton's characterization and descriptions.
We know that he actively pursues her. Even when she tries to reject him ("Go from me," Sonnet 6), he remains close. He spoils her with the best parts of himself:
What can I give thee back, O liberalAnd princely giver, who hast brought the goldAnd purple of thine heart, unstained, untold . . . (Sonnet 8)
He stays with her even when she tells him that she cannot...
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love him openly:
And yet, because I love thee, I obtainFrom that same love this vindicating graceTo live on still in love, and yet in vain,—To bless thee, yet renounce thee to thy face. (Sonnet 11)
He is "noble and like a king" (Sonnet 16) in his treatment of her, even throughout their hidden affair.
In Sonnet 35, she is becoming more convinced that she cannot live apart from this man, as she asks him,
If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchangeAnd be all to me?
He must convince her of his love and ability to forever sustain her, because in Sonnet 43, Moulton speaks of a passionate and eternal love that she cannot measure and says,
I love thee to the level of everyday’sMost quiet need . . .
which is exactly a sentiment that she questions in an earlier sonnet. Browning has become her sense of home, her everyday and ordinary world and the one she realizes she will love even after death, if God allows it.