About the poet:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most prominent English poets of the Victorian period. Her poetry was widely popular in both England and the United States during her lifetime.
Barrett Browning was born in Coxhoe Hall, between the villages of Coxhoe and Kelloe in County Durham, on 6th March 1806. She was the eldest of 12 children and was educated at home. She wrote poetry from around the age of six and all her works were compiled by her mother, comprising what is now one of the largest collections extent of juvenilia by any English writer. Barrett Browning’s first known poem was written at the age of six or eight, and was entitled “On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man””. The manuscript, which protests against impressment (the forcible inclusion of men in the navy), is currently in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. Its exact date is controversial because the “2” in the date 1812 is written on something else that is scratched out.
Barrett Browning’s first collection of poems entitled An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, was published in 1826 and it reflected her passion for Byron and Greek politics. At the age of 15m she became ill, suffering from intense head and spinal pain for the rest of her life, rendering her frail. She took laudanum for the pain, which may have led to a lifelong addiction and contributed heavily to her weak health.
Barrett Browning’s first adult collection entitled The Seraphim and Other Poems was published in 1838. At this time she contracted a disease, possibly tuberculosis, which weakened her further. Confined to one room of their house at Wimpole Street, in London, she wrote prolifically between 1841 and 1844, producing poetry, translation, and prose. She campaigned strongly for the abolition of slavery and her work helped influence reform in the child labor legislation. Her prolific output, in fact, made her a rival to Tennyson as a candidate for poet laureate on the death of Wordsworth in 1850.
In the year 1844, Barrett Browning met and corresponded with the writer Robert Browning, who admired her work. The courtship and marriage between the two were carried out in secret, for fear that her father would disapprove. Following the wedding, she was disinherited by her father and also rejected by her brothers. The couple thus moved to Italy in 1846, where she would live for the rest of her life. The verse-novel Aurora Leigh, her most ambitious and perhaps the most popular of her longer poems, was published in 1856. It is the story of a female writer making her way in life, trying to find a balance between work and love. The writings depicted in this novel are based on Barrett Browning’s own experiences.
Barrett Browning died in Florence on 29th June 1861. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband shortly following her death.
About If Thou Must Love:
This poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning was published as Sonnet XIV (Sonnet 14) of her collection of sonnets entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese in 1950. The latter is a collection of 44 love sonnets dedicated to her husband, Robert Browning.
Barrett Browning was initially hesitant to publish the poems, believing them to be too personal. However, her husband insisted that they were the best sequence of English-language sonnets since Shakespeare‘s time and urged her to publish them. To maintain the couple’s privacy to some extent, she decided to publish them as if they were translations of foreign sonnets. Therefore, she planned to title the collection Sonnets from the Bosnian, but Robert counter-proposed that she claims their source was Portuguese, probably because of her admiration for the eminent 16th-century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões and because Robert’s nickname for her was “my little Portuguese”.
The setting of If Thou Must Love:
This sonnet is set in the context of the poet’s relationship with her husband. She wants the relationship to last forever and tells him how they might achieve that.
Summary of If Thou Must Love:
The poem consists of 14 lines in total. A poem of 14 lines, like this one, is called a sonnet. A sonnet is generally divided into an eight-line unit known as an octave, and a six-line unit known as a sestet. The octave and sestet can together form a single stanza (which is the case here), or appear as two separate stanzas. The 14 lines of this poem are divided into meaningful segments for the purposes of this summary in order to make the poem easier to follow and understand.
Lines 1 – 6:
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
‘I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day’—
In these lines, the poet tells her beloved that he is neither required nor expected to love her. However, if he chooses to do so, the choice must be made on the basis of love and only love. She should never hear him say that he loves her because she has a pretty smile. He must not say he loves her because she is herself beautiful. He must not say that he loves her because she speaks in an elegant manner. He must not say that he loves her because they think alike and that because they do, she had been able to soothe his mind on a certain day when he was perhaps in an agitated mental state. None of these reasons are acceptable as a reason to love where the poet is concerned.
Lines 7 – 10:
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,—
In these lines, the poet says that all the reasons she has asked him never to cite as reasons that he loves her are liable to alter, or else they may seem to have altered particularly to him. And if such a thing happens, then the love they had built up together will come unraveling. Another reason he must never give for loving her is the pity he feels for her that causes him to wipe the tears from her cheek, and that endears him to her as well.
Lines 11 – 14:
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.
In these lines, she refers to herself as just a ‘creature’ among the many others created by God on this earth. She says that a creature like her might turn out to be ungrateful for all that her beloved has done to alleviate distress from her life. She might forget to cry, and as a result, lose both his pity and his love. However, if he were to love her for the sake of love alone, then their relationship would last a lifetime. This is what the poet wants with all her heart.