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Written by Timothy Sexton
Do not say"
‘I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently
The speaker of this poem is, of course, the poet. Of that fact there is none of the usual ambiguity at work that separates the speaker from the poet. We know for certain this is Elizabeth writing to Robert Browning. She is still a Barrett; the elopement has not yet taken place. The relationship is secret and the sonnets are what might be considered a 19th century version of text messaging or even, perhaps, social media posts under screen names which don’t give true identity away. What separates the Sonnets from the Portuguese from other love poetry of the time is that they are really are love letters in poetic form.
Whether or not they were also composed for potential publication is beside the point because their main reason for existing is to convey the thoughts of Elizabeth to the love of her life. With that in mind, consider them also as expressions that would likely not have been accepted too easily by a broad swath of the public. This is an order, not a request. The speaker is doing something taken for granted by modern readers in making a demand of the way her lover loves her. This doesn’t even qualify as feminist empowerment today. Back then it was a wrecking ball directed toward the patriarchy.
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee—and love, so wrought
May be unwrought so.
If someone said they loved you for sense of humor and something tragic happened with it impossible for you to look at the world with humor, would that person still be able to love you? That’s an extreme example, of course…or is it? People fall in love with others for a thousand different reasons and with time comes change. But does falling out of love result from the passage or time or the changes experienced during it? Ever hear a long-married person say the eventual divorce was not a result of falling out of love, but of simply growing apart?
That is what is at stake in this quote. After outlining various things which might cause Robert to fall in love with her, Elizabeth poses the question: what happens if those things change? It is doubtlessly possible to remain in love with someone who is longer the person you fell in love with, but really, what does the expression “growing apart” mean if it can’t be attributed to the things which made you fall in love no longer being there?
But love me for love's sake, that evermore Thou mayst love on, through love's eternity
What the poet seems to be asking for in this poem more than anything else is that Robert love her for the things that are timeless and permanent. She wants a love that will last not just death do them part, but even afterward into the afterlife. That is a desire that is almost pathological; it is certainly obsessive. Which is to not paint Elizabeth as a stalker, but rather to bring up the why of this pathological desire for something permanent.
It is not always—or even usually—a good idea to bring too much autobiography of a poet into the poem, but in the case of Elizabeth, it is inevitable. These sonnets written to Robert Browning were composed over a period linking 1845 to 1846. She was desperately in love with Browning, but knew that the minute she got married, her truly pathological father would disown her. Just five years earlier, she lost two brothers within just a few months of each other. This was a woman who’d had enough of the unpredictably and randomness of existence. Her aching desire for a love to transcend time was well-earned.
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Study Guide for If Thou Must Love Me, Let It Be For Nought (Sonnet 14)
If Thou Must Love Me, Let It Be For Nought (Sonnet 14) study guide contains a biography of Elizabeth Browning, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.