Poetry Study Aid: If Thou Must Love Me Sonnet 14: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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If Thou Must Love Me
 Sonnet 14
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Barrett Browning is a Victorian
English poet whose literary
eminence essentially depends upon Sonnets from Portuguese, a
collection of 44 sonnets that expresses her deep love for her future husband
Robert Browning. If Thou Must Love Me is one of the sonnets from Sonnets
from Portuguese

The poem sets out with the poet calling for
her lover not to love her merely for the sake of love; but love her truthfully
and unconditionally. She enjoins him not to love her for outward or visible aspects
but for her essence so that the love will be true and genuine. Furthermore, she
tells her lover not to love her for her appearances or smile which will deteriorate
with the ravages of time. She then asserts that he should not love her for her
manner of speaking or for her gentle voice. He should not love her for her virtues
which would offer him pleasure only for a day. Here the poet desires to express
that true love does not merely grow out of appearances but true love goes
deeper than the shallow show of outward countenance. She holds that if her
lover loves her just because of endearing attributes, then, in all probability,
in future his love would die out when her outward merits die away.
In the subsequent lines the poet asks her
lover not to love her because of his compassion or pity towards her. She says
this because she knows in the comfort and delight that her lover offers her
there is likelihood that she may bury in heart her sorrows which are too deep
for tears and also that she ‘might forget to weep’. In the spell of such an
exalted experience her lover will find no tears on her cheeks to be wiped off
by him making him to stop loving her.  
In the concluding two lines of the poem, the
poet reiterates what she had stressed earlier; that is, she wants her lover to
love her unconditionally so that he will continue to love her even if her qualities
wither with the passage of time. When you love someone unconditionally the
relentless passage of time can have no effect on such a love and love transcends
the withering effects of the course of time and remains eternal and
everlasting.  Thus the poet wants her
lover to love her eternally with a love that lasts forever.
The main theme of Sonnet If Thou Must
Love Me
is the everlasting character of love. Love can be eternal only
and only if one loves the other not for short-lived earthly motives and
ephemeral reasons. Earthly reasons are transient, and so are the momentary
feelings of man. True love itself does not weaken and die away: thus, her lover
should love her, if he ought to love her, for the sake of love only. The poet
desires the love to be elevated out of the domain of transitory human fervour
into the dominion of endless, blissful ardour.

A Note on Structure
Sonnet is a lyrical poem of 14 lines with a definite rhyme scheme. There
are two types of sonnets in general the Petrarchan Sonnet and the English
Sonnet popularly known as the Shakespearean Sonnet as Shakespeare was an ardent
practitioner of the Sonnet form.
The Petrarchan sonnet (with the rhyme scheme a b b a, a b b a, cde, cde)
has two divisions: the first eight lines called the octave and the remaining
six lines called the sestet.  The octave
is further divided into two sections of four lines each known as the
quatrains.  The Sonneteer, usually,
presents a problem or an argument in the octave and then tries to resolve the
problem or argument in the sestet.
The Shakespearean Sonnet follows a different pattern (with the rhyme
scheme a b b a, cdcd, efef, gg) with three quatrains and the final couplet.
Love in its myriad forms was the trendiest theme of the sonnets.

In If Thou Must Love Me the poet Elizabeth Barrrett Browning fuses the two sonnet structures, the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean, so as to create a new form. In this sonnet the rhyme scheme is a b b a a b b a cdc dc de. Moreover, the problem presented, that is, the need for unconditional love, stretches into the sestet of the sonnet and the resolution is in the final couplet of the sonnet. This variation in form and content endows the sonnet If Thou Must Love a harmony, and implies the theme of the poem- an harmony in sentiment and the desires of the lover and the beloved to be loved till eternity.


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