Whenever English love poetry is discussed, almost invariably the opening of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s penultimate poem of Sonnets from the Portuguese is quoted: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” The collection represents, variously, depending on the quoter’s prejudice, a gem of lyrical eloquence, an oversentimental extravagance, or a tired cliché. Browning’s masterpiece, Sonnets from the Portuguese, went through a complete cycle of literary reception, first being overpraised as “the noblest [sonnets] ever written,” then undervalued as overly emotional effusions, and eventually accepted as a major work. Despite minor cavils, Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese is assured a permanent reputation as one of the foremost collections of love poetry in the English language.
The recurring criticism of sentimentalism has some validity, but the charge may be met on several grounds. Elizabeth Barrett wrote Sonnets from the Portuguese during her passionate courtship with Robert Browning. They record the emotions of that time, and emotions are not always “recollected in tranquility” as William Wordsworth suggested poetry should be. Moreover, the poet never intended them for publication. Then, too, she was writing in a culture whose strictures against poetic display of emotion were less narrow than those of later times; indeed, compared to the other popular love lyrics of her time, Sonnets from the Portuguese are less sentimental, as an 1860 review in The Southern Literary Messenger attests. Finally, the sonnets were written by a poet to a poet, which makes them unique among love sonnets and allows for a freedom of emotional language that could be relied upon to be understood.
Browning did not, however, show the poems to her husband until three years after their marriage. When she did, he insisted that she publish the sonnets, which he reportedly deemed the best since William Shakespeare’s, in her 1850 volume of collected poems. He suggested the title “Sonnets from the Portuguese” to disguise the work as a translation. Neither of the Brownings believed that it would be in good taste to publicize their private relationship. Robert had admired Elizabeth’s early poem “Catarina to Camoëns,” which suggested the title, since Luis Vaz de Camoëns was a Portuguese poet.
Although individual sonnets were written in English since their vogue in the 1590’s (except for a 150-year hiatus between the sonnets of John Milton and those of Wordsworth), Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese represented the first true sonnet sequence in English since the Elizabethans. Since Shakespeare’s time, sonnets in English tended to follow the pattern established by Shakespeare’s sonnets: three sets of four lines (quatrains) concluding with a couplet. The sonnets Elizabeth Barrett wrote before Sonnets from the Portuguese followed this Shakespearean or “English” sonnet form. In her sonnet sequence, however, she followed the much more demanding Petrarchan or Italian form, where the first two quatrains share rhyme pairs and form a single unit (the octave) that rhymes abba abba. The remaining six lines, instead of breaking into quatrain and couplet, are similarly unified; the Italian form allows many variations, but the scheme Elizabeth Barrett settled on was invariably cdcdcd. This means that in the entire fourteen lines of each sonnet there are only four rhyme sounds, an unparalleled economy of rhyme.
The opening sonnet of the sequence introduces the biographical element that has always been at least part of the attraction of these love sonnets. In 1845, as she wrote these lines, Elizabeth Barrett was nearing forty, still living with a domineering father who had forbidden her to marry but encouraged her writing and her scholarship. The “antique tongue” represents the ancient Greek in which she was fluent and from which she had translated many classical works. A...
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