If Thou Must Love Me by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
If Thou Must Love Me: Line by Line Explanation
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) wrote ‘If Thou Must Love Me’. It is the sonnet no.14 of her collection named ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ that has 44 love poems. She was a very renowned woman poet of the Victorian era (1830-1890) of English literature. In the sonnets Elizabeth Barrett Browning pours out her heart for her love for her lover and future husband Robert Browning, a great Victorian poet, too.
The sonnet is in the Italian or Petrarchan form of sonnet with the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CD CD CD.
THE POEM …
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only.
Meaning … The poet lets her readers know her expectations from her lover. Quite candidly she says that her lover must have towards her only pure, undiluted love, un-tinged by any other sentiment. Quite unabashedly, she states that it is ‘love’ only that should bind her lover to her, nothing else.
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’ –
Meaning …The poet wants that neither her beautiful body, sweet and suave demeanor, nor her mental disposition should be the bedrock of her alliance with her lover. She asks her lover not to love her because of her bewitching smile, and her genteel speaking. She also tells him that her qualities might be very appealing to him, and he could one day discover great convergence in their thoughts, but these traits must not beckon him to her. These transient attractions must be kept away from his love towards her, she implores.
For those things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee, – and love so wrought,
May be unwrought so.
The poet has some mild and sane words of advice for her lover. Humans, both men and women, have bodies that age, wither, and fade with time. In the same vein, human traits, mannerisms, and mental attributes change. Even for the same man, his beloved’s sweetness of self may not last indefinitely. Therefore, pleads the author, her lover must discern between true love and love based on transitory fancy. For the bonds of love to endure, lovers must rise above outward signs of attractiveness, and decide if there is something more heavenly that draws them together. Lovers who fall prey to the visible lure in one another might come to grief as the strains of time tears their love apart making them to drift away. The author beseeches her lover to weigh these words in mind.
Love ‘wrought’ with worldly attractions is more likely to ‘unwrought’ than true love.
Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,
A creature might forget to weep who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning doesn’t want her lover to love her out of feelings of pity or empathy. He may wipe her cheeks to comfort her, but such loving gestures may not come often. If she stops to weep in future, her lover would stop to show such effusive signs of caring and sharing. That would strike at the root of their bonding.
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity.
In the last two lines of the sonnet If Thou Must Love Me, the poet spells out her own ideas of ‘true love’. She explains how a man should love a woman unconditionally for their mutual attraction to endure. Love driven by lust or desire will diminish, no matter how string the initial surge might be.
[To be continued with questions and answers]