Indeed this very love which is my boast,
And which, when rising up from breast to brow,
Doth crown me with a ruby large enow
To draw men’s eyes and prove the inner cost,—
This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,
I should not love withal, unless that thou
Hadst set me an example, shown me how,
When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed,
And love called love. And thus, I cannot speak
Of love even, as a good thing of my own:
Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,
And placed it by thee on a golden throne,—
And that I love (O soul, we must be meek!)
Is by thee only, whom I love alone.
This month’s poem, as it’s Valentine’s Day, makes love its centre. It comes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (1806-1861) sequence Sonnets from the Portuguese, widely considered to be one of the greatest series of sonnets written in English since Shakespeare’s attempt 250 years earlier.
A sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines, usually with a strict rhyming scheme, and something called a ‘volta’ after the eighth line (this is just a fancy term of ‘turn’, which is the moment the poem makes a surprising change in what it’s saying). Sonnets are also historically associated with both expressions of love and logical argument, and Barrett Browning’s is no different—just try counting up the number of times the word ‘love’ is used here and you get the idea.
The poet also uses this form to make clear the difficulties of expressing such a feeling. Take a look at the volta-line: ‘And love called love. And thus, I cannot speak’’. Here the poem starts to struggle with its own topic, at once insisting and also suggesting that love is something difficult to put into words (‘I cannot speak’) and self-defining (‘love called love’).
However, ‘love called love’ has a double function, and marks the poems central acknowledgement: that love is felt between two people (‘Is by thee only, whom I love alone’), and the mutual feeling, in the end, strengthens them both: ‘Doth crown me with a ruby’. Ultimately, then, love does not always come easy, but can be sustained by the power of two people (like a poem is sustained between the writer and the reader), which is the art of being alone together