“The Beloved's Possible Response to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poem”
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by Ngoc M. Nguyen
"How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways"
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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 every day'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.
Victorian-era, English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wife to poet Robert Browning, is best known for her remarkable sequence of 44 love poems, “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” Published in 1850, they were written for her husband, who in turn suggested their title. The penultimate poem in the sequence, the sonnet above is next to last at XLIII (that is, no. 43). Mrs. Browning wrote the sonnets during the early years of their relationship to immortalize her ever so grateful affection and ardor for her poet husband, who literally snatched her out of the near-impending clutches of spinsterhood by first courting—and then marrying—her. Their obvious sincerity, gentleness, and passion and the devotion and gratitude they express have made the poems favorites with generations of readers since their publication. The purpose of this essay is to imagine and capture for the reader the possible response of Robert Browning—the beloved—to Mrs. Browning's eloquent suite of love poems—using, most especially, the selected poem above.
To Browning's poem, the reader might imagine the beloved to respond with a deep, profound sense of awe and humbled gratitude and appreciation for someone whose expressions of love and affection are so exalting and elevating to the spirit. The beloved might also feel ennobled and lifted up by such ideal pronouncements of love. Such feelings on the beloved's part are likely to move and stir him to earnestly seek and desire to reciprocate that love in kind and in degree in return. Insomuch, in fact, that the beloved might want to be a vastly and infinitely better man for this most illustrious woman. The beloved conceivably would even move the world for her. And would go to the ends of the earth for her, as well! And transcend the limits of infinity for her, moreover. In addition, it would be very possible that the beloved—out of poignancy of tenderness and requited love—might revolve his entire existence around such a divinely devoted soul even as the nine traditional planets in the Solar System revolve around the Sun. And like the moon in orbit around the Earth, the beloved might forever dwell in orbit around her. Furthermore, this woman—the poet—might end up as the sine qua non and the ne plus ultra of the beloved's existence all at once! And she might quite possibly transform—in a figurative sense—into being the beloved's greatest possession and most treasured prize, whom he would jealously protect and encircle with barbed wires and trenches of love. Most truly, this set of responses by the beloved to Browning because of her poem would be the most likely and the most imaginable.
Furthermore, the beloved might feel and respond in the ways described above because the poet's expressions of love are rich and robust with sublime and majestic language and choice of words: "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." The poet loves the beloved to the complete fullness of dimension, as it were. She also loves the beloved to the rhythms and levels of everyday existence: "I love thee to the level of every day's/ Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight." She, as well, loves the beloved with overflowing unrestraint: "I love thee freely, as men strive for Right." And she loves him with humble purity: "I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise." In addition, the poet loves the beloved with the passion that arises from the sorrows and the pains of life; and, she loves him with the simple, child-like faith that is free from stain and taint: "I love thee with the passion put to use/ In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith." She even loves the beloved with a love that is poignantly moving and touching, a love that causes her both pain and sorrow in its complete and utmost expression: "I love thee with a love I seemed to lose/ With my lost saints." The poet also loves the beloved with a love that makes all the essentials of life possible, such as the breath in one's lungs, the nourishment and water in one's body, the warmth and shelter of hearth and home, and the jovial company of kith and kin (during traditional holidays): "I love thee with the breath,/ Smiles, tears of all my life!" Finally, Browning—the poet—loves the beloved with a love that transcends even Death—for her love is a love imperishable, and therefore immortal, framed in her mortal (but ardent) body of flesh and blood: "and, if God choose,/ I shall but love thee better after death."
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sequence of 44 love poems—entitled “Sonnets from the Portuguese”—flows with lofty language and eloquence that are meant to convey to the beloved the poet's loving devotion and undying gratitude with unequivocal tenderness of feeling and emotion. The selected poem in particular is the focal point upon which the beloved's possible response is speculated and imagined for the reader. As clearly hypothesized in this essay, the reader is allowed to envision and picture how the beloved might respond to such an apparently sincere, gentle, and impassioned poem of infinite affection, love, and effusiveness of emotion. However, a modern critic might observe that such depth and profundity of romantic intensity and ardency from one individual for another would be unheard of today. And, in modern parlance, over the top as well. If not possibly even “quixotic,” that is to say, so impractical as to be too idealistic—or foolish. Granted—given the “romantic” Zeitgeist of today—one would have to concede the point to such a critic. For today singles and people in general are much more inclined than ever before to be cynical and realistic about the game of love, which has morphed and evolved into something very unrecognizable and different from what courtship, love, and the sacrament of marriage were like in the mid-nineteenth century (when Robert Browning in succession wooed, courted, then proposed marriage, and finally wedded poet Elizabeth Barrett in 1846). Still, however, the reader can be supremely confident and certain that whatever a critic of today may point out or underscore about Browning's purportedly extravagant and overblown declarations of eternal and everlasting commitment and adoration, her honored beloved—husband Robert Browning—most assuredly does not object to them in the slightest at all.