Sonnets from the Portuguese are a sequence of 44 sonnets which were written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning during the course of her courtship with the poet Robert Browning. Sonnet 43 is the perhaps the most famous, with the opening line 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways'.
Robert and Elizabeth met in May 1845 and while his attraction to her was almost instantaneous, her feelings for him took longer to develop. 6 years his senior and a lifelong sufferer of ill health, Elizabeth needed to be convinced that his affection for her was sincere and reliable. Elizabeth’s father had forbidden his children from marrying and declared he would disinherit those who did. As a result, Elizabeth was deeply aware of all that she would risk if she married Browning.
In Sonnets from the Portuguese, we can see these initial fears and doubts are raised but by the later sonnets, such as Sonnet 43, these fears have been replaced by feelings of love and excitement as Elizabeth became surer of the relationship.
Elizabeth and Robert remained happily married for 15 years. On the 29th of June 1861 Elizabeth died in Robert’s arms after a long illness.
Why are they called Sonnets from the Portuguese?
Elizabeth was initially reluctant to publish the poems due to their intimate nature. However, Robert convinced her of their importance and she published them in her book Poems in 1850. To help protect her privacy, Elizabeth called them The Sonnets from the Portuguese to create the impression that she had just translated them from Portuguese rather than written them herself. The choice of Portuguese is thought to have been inspired by her husband’s nickname for her, 'My little Portuguese'.
The success of the sonnets and the effect of Robert Browning on Elizabeth’s poetry
These sonnets were an instant success and were Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most commercially successful work. They were especially ground-breaking due to their female narrator; previously the women in this type of poem had been passive and remote objects of admiration without voice or opinion.
The success of the work has led to the belief that it was Robert Browning who made Elizabeth a great poet. However, Robert initially wrote to Elizabeth because of his admiration for her poetry and she was considered for Poet Laureateship in 1850 because of the body of work she had produced before and after meeting Browning. Although there is no doubt that their relationship was mutually beneficial to their work, in the years after her death people came to regard Elizabeth as little more than a muse and appendage to Browning. Fortunately, a revival of interest in Elizabeth Barrett Browning in recent years has helped to give her back some of the recognition she deserves.
How do I love thee ? Let me count the ways ?
I love thee to the depth & breadth & 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 & candlelight -
I love thee freely, as men strive for right, -
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise !.
I love thee with the pafs[ion,] put to use
In my old griefs , and with [childhood?] my childhood's faith ' -
I love thee with the 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 [illegible] death.