Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sonnets From The Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 Sonnets From The Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

My copy of the book is reprinted from the fourth edition of "Poems" by Barrett Browning which was published in 1856.

Source: this one's mine--although when I got it, I can't recall.  Strangely there is no publication in my slim, leather-bound edition.  I know I've had it more than 30 years.

Reading these sonnets, I was struck by several things.  They just don't right 'em like this any more and I'm not sure anyone else ever did.  These sonnets are a collection of very personal poems, not just love sonnets.  The Barret family was once well-to-do but when Elizabeth was 18 her family fell on hard time.  Depending on the source, she began to suffer from a mysterious ailment at 15 or 20 that doctors at the time were never able to accurately diagnosis,  leaving her something of an invalid and a morphine addict. Both of these circumstances were very obvious this collection as was a strong sense of God.

Elizabeth Barret met Robert Browning after he wrote to her because he enjoyed one of her poetry collections.  Six years younger than her and far more worldly, she seemed to have trouble believing that he loved her as much as he professed.  The collection that is now referred to as "Sonnets From The Portuguese" is a very personal journey through the course of their courtship including her questioning of his assertions of love and her doubts about leaving her family for him.  Robert convinced her to publish the collection even though Elizabeth felt they were too personal; they came upon the title as a way to disguise the fact that Elizabeth had written them to Robert.  "My little Portuguese" was his nickname for her, hence the choice to pretend that the collection was a translation of Portuguese poetry.

There are many lovely poems in this collection, although some of them left me scratching my head.  Of course, Barret Browning's  most famous poem is this one:
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
 I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most 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 use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With 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."


  1. I haven't really read a lot of poetry in the last ten years or so, but every time I come across a review like this one, I wonder why I ever let it go and why I don't write poetry like I used to. I like the sound of this collection and think that it would probably be a good read for me, so I am going to try to snag a copy. You have inspired me to give poetry a chance again, and now I am excited!

  2. You are reading a wide range of books right now! Are they to complete challenges or is this just what's interesting to you at the moment?

    I love the variety!

  3. I visited Elizabeth's grave in Florence (after dodging crazy traffic) in this tiny Protestant cemetery smack in the middle of a street. At that time, I didn't realize it but Robert wasn't buried next to her, which is sad considering how theirs is such a romantic story.

  4. I never knew she was a morphine addict!!!!!!!! I haven't read any of her works...I should become familiar with her writings!!

  5. Wow, I did not about her but this is fascinating story behind the book. I love the poem you have quoted here, it is is heart-warming.

  6. What a lovely book that must be! Her famous sonnet is just so beautiful.

  7. I never took the time to study and enjoy poetry. I applaud your diverse reading.

  8. Ah, it's been a while since I read this -- you remind me to not forget about poetry and revisit it. Many, many thanks!!

  9. I've only read a few of Elizabeth Barret Browning's poems. I love to read poetry--especially out loud, but I don't do it too often because I always feel like I'm missing something. I'm not sure I really am--it's probably just my insecurities coming through. LOL Anyhow, my favorite poet is Emily Dickinson. I can never get enough of her poetry.