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.
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.


Questions and answers ..

Q1.What does the speaker mean by saying ‘Let it be for nought’?  How does the speaker want her lover to love her?

Answer … Through the words ‘let it be for nought’, the poet beseeches her lover to love her for nothing else, but love’s sake alone.  She doesn’t wish to be loved for her physical attributes like her smile, her looks, and her way of thinking that her lover  finds bewitching.  Any feeling of amorous pity that her lover feels for her should not bind him to her, she urges, because these things, being transitory, might fade away with time.  She wishes so, as she believes that in future when she fails to rekindle the same sensuousness in her lover, he would stop loving her.  She wants her lover’s longing for her to be eternal and everlasting.  Thus, she wishes to be loved for nothing but love.


Q2. What is the reason for asking her lover not to love her for those particular traits?

A2. The poet asks her lover not to love her for those particular traits like physical charm, way of thinking etc., because she very well knows that her physical traits like her smile, voice, ways of thinking, etc. would change wilt with the passage of time and then she would not be loved by her lover’s loving attention waning.  She doesn’t want a courtly impulsive desire-driven kind of love. Instead, but she wants an eternal and everlasting love from her lover.

Q3. Give meanings of

a. A trick of thought-By ‘A trick of time thought’, the speaker means to say she shouldn’t be loved for her trick of thought that is the particular way of thinking which changes with the passage of time and may mislead the person.

b. A sense of pleasant ease on such a day-By this the speaker means her apparent qualities that may provide comfort to her lover for one day or so.

c. Love so wrought may be unwrought so-Love displayed so extraordinarily or elaborately could whiter away with the passage of time.

d. May be change or changed for thee-The facial attributes that shall wither away for wipe out with the passage of time.

Q4. What is referred to by ‘dear pity’?  What is meant by ‘Whipping my cheeks dry”?

Answer … A lover’s heart generally overflows with sympathy, kindness and sensitivity for the slightest distress of the beloved. The word ‘pity’ implies the combination of extraordinary tenderness and warmth that the lover shows to bring solace to the tearful eyes of the woman of his heart. Such sympathy wipes her tears, and restores her joyfulness.

Q5.  How does the poem show the demand of equal status by a woman?

Answer.  The poem was written in the Victorian era when the responsibility of control of the society rested with men. In such a patriarchal set-up, women were relegated to the lower rungs of social order. They were not given the right to caste vote, or to own property, etc.  Considered to be mere social ornaments, they were denied the right to education.  In the poem, the poet cherishes equality of men and women in decision making.  She detests the idea of being a piece of social ornament, and abhors the status of an object of sensual pleasure. Instead, she asserts her desire to be loved truly.  She mocks at the courtly kind of love that prevailed in those times. In doing so, she brings out the meaning of true and genuine love.  The poem underscores values contrary to the type of literature and social ethos found in that era that focused on the physical appearance of the much-adored maidens. Thus, the poem underlines the demand of equal status for a woman.

Q6. Who is the ‘creature’ referred in the above lines?  Why is it called so?  Why not the poet wants to compare herself with the ‘creature’?

Answer .. Through use of the word ‘creature’, the poet alludes to something similar to an animal such as the Whimpering Do or the Flopping Baby bird.  These creatures invoke instant human pity for themselves in the eyes of the people who see them.   They seek to trigger feelings of love and affection from others.  She doesn’t want to equate herself with the ‘creature’, because she finds the idea demeaning and deceitful. The creatures evoke sympathy, get love, but, on getting it in abundance, they flee. The care giver soon forgets them. In other words, no lasting bond between the creatures and humans is established. She doesn’t wish to be forgotten after being loved only for a particular point of time when she is sad.   

[To be continued with more questions and answers]

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15 Responses

  1. Sobhan says:

    Sir, please write the analysis of The Professor by Nissim Ezekiel.
    ICSE exams are round the corner. So, please write soon.

  2. Aditya says:

    Sir awesome liked this so much u helped me a lot plss pray to god that my tommorrows english literature must go well

  3. Swati says:

    Sir,to what creature poetess compare herself and why?

  4. adarshpriya says:

    Hi! I read your posts and was inspired a lot. Can you please tell me something about you? I’d like to write an article on you and your work. Thanks

    • Satya Prakash says:

      Thank you, Adarshpriya for your kind sentiments. I am just an ordinary man, 70 years old, physically handicapped, retired man with not even a bachelor’s degree in English. I will however be interested to learn about you.

      • adarshpriya says:

        Ah well! Love for the language breaks barriers of subjects and degrees. Helping students through this social work is amazing!
        So little about me: I’m a teen who has switched on from city to city, lived under a superficial bubble. Now that I’ve shifted to a small village in HP, this superficial bubble i used to live in, has burst. So I tuition the village kids, voluntarily teach in a school, teach designing to the women and of course, do some kinda photography, reading, writing and scores of other activities.
        Many thanks

  5. adarshpriya says:

    but anyway, homeschoolers like us get inspired from you! I’d suggest something though: you could write articles for newspapers like The Hindu(?) I mean you’re totally into current affairs and possess commendable knowledge over these subjects. Sometimes, of course, we don’t want to write commercially, but that could help the aspirants and the poor children. All these years, i have tried to write a lot. However, i could never get it published because in the small village of Kinbari one can’t get a Macbook repaired. I will, as soon as it gets repaired. So you may try it out someday. And perhaps for the outlook as well. my dad writes for outlook so i can get you the emails of the editors and stuff like that

    • Satya Prakash says:

      I really appreciate your kind words. I am curious to know how such passion for writing grew in you. Send me any recent writing of yours.

      • adarshpriya says:

        Ahaa! I do write frequently but since my mac got some software problem, I couldn’t post it anywhere. I don’t really write lengthy pieces, but small haiku kinda poetry. Wait I’ll share a few:

        Like all seasons, she blooms and dies, laughs and sighs, with lively but knowing eyes

        She liked strangers, She let them come and go.
        She liked to be the the person no one would ever know.

        A house not home
        no heart or soul
        just a pile of bricks you own

        She wears strength and darkness equally well,
        the girl has always been half goddess, half hell.

        She wore a thousand faces, all to hide her own

        Small captions that i write with Instagram pictures

        • Satya Prakash says:

          I read and re-read it your haiku compositions with great pleasure. I will soon show it to my best English literature student. Great job!

  6. adarshpriya says:

    Thanks! There are a few more: Her dark heart was the only passage to the light in her eyes; She needed someone to rest her wings on, not tear them away; Soul trapped in her silhouette, her words caged in their world; All these might sound very futile without the pictures i click. These are mere captions. So maybe you would want to see the pictures! Anyway, i also write some for my blog. HERE is one:
    Where the mountains meet the sky, city lights are fireflies.
    Diving deeper in to the night, she writes endless thoughts with tired eyes.
    Fingertips waltzing across the keyboard, telling stories that were never told.

    [An old man’s brilliant smile, daydreams of a timid child.
    Unwanted shrubs, forgotten flowers that lay under the dirt after unusual showers.]

    Caught by a click, a snap of her camera, the words and thoughts of a moment, in a stanza.
    She steadies her shaking hands and looks at the world, through a tiny screen; in a single glance.

    [A playful wooden plank, chubby momo making hands; chocolate and tea, smoke and greed.
    White waters, daring rafters; mighty woods and hidden laughter.]

    She captures life, seen through her eyes.
    The trip she had taken, though alone, her words and pictures will carry you along

    So have a good read:) Thanks!!

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