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 candle-light.
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.
Every day’s Most Quiet Need: Exploring Browning’s Sonnet 43
by Crystal Hurd
History tells us that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a talented, but a perpetually pale and sickly young woman. Bedridden, she resorted to reading books and feeding a hungry imagination. Her poetic prowess was evident early on; her first published poem was written between the ages of six and eight. Yet, Elizabeth was restricted by a nagging illness which prevented her from living like a “normal” woman. There was no dancing, no parading around in new dresses, no flirting with potential beaus. Instead of assisting in the home, she was infirm and domestically useless, a needy patient more than a sister and daughter. The illness stole all of these young pleasures from her. She assumed that this would be her life – a frail, wilting woman confined to a bed and experiencing life through the lens of literature.
Enter Robert Browning.
Robert Browning was a promising poet in his own right. Elizabeth’s poetry had won her public admiration and Robert was among her loyal fans. He wrote and arranged to meet her at her home. Soon after striking up a friendship, he confessed his love for her. She was overwhelmed with happiness, as one can imagine. In her thirties, Elizabeth thought her chances of love were nonexistent. Here, love had literally come to her door. She was ecstatic. However, her father wasn’t. He had cared for Elizabeth for many years and now felt this “gold-digging” stranger had come to steal away his ailing daughter. Elizabeth made a tough decision – she eloped with Robert, left her father, and moved to Italy. Although she was essentially disinherited for marrying Robert, she gambled on love.
Although the gamble was risky, it proved successful. Elizabeth and Robert lived happily in Italy, writing poetry and raising their son Robert (nicknamed Pen). Elizabeth eventually succumbed to illness, but it is believed that her relationship with Robert is the cause for a marked improvement in her health for several years. I think it is important to note that Elizabeth used the Italian or Petrarchan form for this deep expression of fondness. It is interesting to note that she perhaps used this form to illustrate how the changes of her life – her relationship and migration to Italy – impacted her work.
The first time I read this sonnet, I could feel the intensity of Elizabeth’s emotion. This man, the object of her affection, had rescued her from the depths of her illness. But after hearing their story, I began to wonder about all the responsibility that Robert inherited with the marriage. Her illness improved, but never completely vanished. I’m sure there were days that Robert was burdened by her medical needs. He must have emptied her chamber pot and made meals and had to take extra care of Pen. Robert was husband and caregiver. He was there in assist in “every day’s most quiet need” but he did it without complaint and with total devotion.
That is the real joy behind this love sonnet. Often love is not what our culture perceives it to be. It is tough. It is durable. It is not symbolized by chocolate and lingerie and jewelry. Although those are all nice, sentimental objects, true love is really forged in the not-so-tender moments. Love, like faith, is easy when all is well. It is when the path becomes thorny and uneven and we experience discomfort or misunderstanding that are we truly tested. I remember when my father had quadruple bypass surgery almost five years ago. My mother was inconsolable during the prolonged hours of uncertainty. When my father finally emerged, my mother rushed to his side and weaved her shaking hand through the tangle of cords and locked fingers with him. It was that important to feel him again. My perception of love is redefined in those moments.
As Valentine’s day approaches, I reflect on all of the wonderful love poetry given to us through the centuries. Shakespeare wrote beautiful love sonnets, but I love Elizabeth’s poem because I know the story behind it. Robert’s love never waivered. He gave her many years of happiness. He stood by her through the struggles of illness, through the enmity of a parent, and gave her a renewed motivation for life. That is how love operates, really. It is built upon the actions of many ordinary, anticlimactic moments. Threads of devotion weaved carefully with time and affection to create an unbreakable bond.
Dr. Crystal Hurd is a writer, reader, public school educator, and adjunct professor. She is happily married with three beautiful Terriers (adopted from local shelters). She is a certified book nerd who loves to read and research works involving faith, literature, art, and leadership. You can visit her webpage www.crystalhurd.com , friend her on Facebook, (Crystal Sullivan Hurd) and follow her on Twitter: @DoctorHurd and @hurdofficial.