Tuesday, September 11, 2007

If Thou Must Love Me, Let It Be For Nought by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

If Thou Must Love Me, Let It Be For Nought

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only. 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 ease on such a day"
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee, and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheek dry,
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love's sake, that evermore
Thou may'st love on, through love's eternity.
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is best known for her "Sonnets from the Portuguese" which, I have just found out, are are only pretending to be translations. I've already posted the most famous of these sonnets, How Do I Love Thee?

I like this particular sonnet for a couple of reasons. For instance, I really admire the skill it takes to write a poem with sentences that end midline without ruining the rhythm. The most important reason however, is that the sentiment behind it is so much more practical than many love poems. People change over time, and so loving any one quality or attribute exclusively could get you in trouble. At the same time, the sentiment is as sweetly romantic as a poet could wish -- Love me for love's sake alone, and we can be in love forever. It's an interesting paradox that you can't change the person that you're in love with, but that everybody is changing all the time. The only way love can survive is to be able to change and grow with the couple.

Compare this poem with Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 which says, " Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove: O no! it is an ever-fixed mark." This implies that true love stays the same forever. I've always had trouble with this poem, because all around us we see people moving on after a broken heart. If true love never changes, then what they felt for their first love was not true love at all which means that the broken heart shouldn't hurt like it does. Love, like everything else in life worth having, changes and grows all the time, and it's that quality that lets it endure.


  1. That's because the original meaning of "true love" has been horribly skewed by the media. "True" love is keeping the law of chastity within the marriage contract: you stay true to your love. If they are "false" and you move on, that in no way alters the fact that you kept
    the contract as long as it was in force.


  2. Yeah. I really like that it has the proper rhyme scheme but it doesn't beat you over the head; you actually have to go back and scan it to see it it's there. Beautifully subtle.

  3. I don't think the sentiment in the one poem cancels out the sentiment in the other. I think they both have some neat things that are true.

  4. I think they both kind of say the same thing--" Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds"

    I think that means it's not love if it leaves because of change (finds alteration in the thing it loves)--i think the ever fixed mark does not refer to the thing loved staying the same, but to the love staying fixed.

  5. That's true, Lesli. That's why I said to compare the two poems. I have trouble with the Shakespeare sonnet because so much of it is right on. If it was all bunk, I could just throw it out, but since it has real merit in what it says, I have to find a way to interpret it. What I was trying to say, and obviously didn't communicate, is that it seems to imply the sentiments I outlined there.

    I'm not the only one to read that implication into it -- I was counting on you, my readers, to associate that poem with Maryanne in Sense and Sensibility, who thought that if you truly loved a person, then you couldn't stop loving them even when they turned out to be a total jerk. If she truly loved Willoughby, then she would never be able to stop -- and if she stopped, or let the love change into something else like wistful rememberance and pity, it would mean that she had never really loved him in the first place. She couldn't deal with that idea, she knew she had loved him, and so had no choice but to keep loving him and pine away. You can't love two people with that kind of furvor at once (and even if you could, could it be called true love) , so any hope of moving on was impossible for her to even imagine.

    I agree that if you truly love someone, you won't stop because you discover that they have flaws, or because they grow older and less attractive over time. I just think that Browning's poem describes that kind of true love more clearly than Shakespeare's does.


  6. I just want to say that I hope it doesn't bother anybody that I seem to always try to get the last word when they disagree with something I've written.

    I really do appreciate it when people comment on what I've written. It helps me to become a better writer when people let me know what hasn't come across right. I also value other points of view (though it's still my blog, and it will continue to be skewed to MY point of view) so that I can at least acknowledge them.

    So thanks for your input everybody! Especially Lesli who seems more willing to say she disagrees with me. Of course, about half the time, with proper explanation, we find we really do agree on essentials. Maybe those I grew up with know me so well that I don't have to be coherent for you to understand me.

    Whatever the reason, thanks for paying attention to the blog at all.