“If thou must love me” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet composed of an octave (two groups of four lines), rhyming ABBAABBA, and a sestet (two groups of three lines), rhyming CDCDCD. Unlike a Shakespearean sonnet, the Italian sonnet does not close with a couplet, but the second half of the poem gives a resolution to the first. In the case of this particular sonnet, Browning uses the second half of the sonnet to confirm the first, making it clear what her speaker desires. This sonnet type was made popular by the Italian poet, Francesco Petrarca, who lived in Italy during the 1300s.
This sonnet is number fourteen of a set of forty-four and comes from Browning’s most popular volume of poetry, Sonnets from the Portuguese, first published in 1850.
The poem begins with the speaker declaring that she does not wish to be loved for any reason other than for love’s own sake. She does not want her lover to love her for her smile or the way in which their thoughts are similar, as these things are liable to change over time. She would rather not be loved, than to lose love later in life.
The speaker hopes that her lover will love her simply because he does, as this love will not be “unwrought” by time. No matter how hard one works for love, if it is based on trite principles of 17th-century relationships, such as mannerisms and looks, it will not last forever. She desires a love that will last through “eternity.”
Analysis of “If thou must love me” – Sonnet 14
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
Browning begins this sonnet by making the request that will make up the basis of this poem. She asks of her potential lover, if you are going to love me, don’t let it be for any reason other than the fact that you love me. She does not wish this unnamed lover to care for her for any reason that could be called trite or physical. She wants love for love’s sake and no other.
The speaker goes on to list the ways in which she does not want her lover to justify his love for her. “Do not say,” the speaker says, that you love me for my smile or how I look. Or even, she states, “[my] way / Of speaking gently.” These are all traditional reasons a man, especially one living during the early 1800s, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning was, might state for feeling “love.” She does not care for them. Her speaker sees them as being cliché, common, and stereotyped. The speaker does not want to be defined by her looks or female charm.
She concludes this stanza by stating that she does not want to be loved for any of these reasons, or just because of their thoughts, “[fall] in well” together. It is not a reason to be loved, simply because one’s thoughts are similar to another. She adds to this statement as she transitions into the next line.
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”—
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
The similarity of their thoughts, even though they, “certes brought / A sense of pleasant ease,” or more simply, assuredly or certainly brought pleasure to their time together, is still not a reason to be loved as, she continues, they may change. Not only may their thoughts change, but so too might his opinion of her smile, look, or “way / Of speaking gently.” These are mutable factors of her life and she knows they are no basis on which to build a relationship.
The speaker continues on to say that even if she changed for him, “changed for thee” and worked hard for their love, “love, so wrought,” it still may be “unwrought” with the passage of time. If the two lovers do not find reasons to love one another rather than present-day surface-level pleasantries, then their love may be liable to change over time. The speaker would rather not be loved than risk this in the future.
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!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.
The last lines of this sonnet conclude the speaker’s ideas about love and restate her initial request. She also voices another reason she does not wish to be loved, for pity’s sake. Due to the fact that he has given her comfort in the past and she has heartily appreciated it, she knows that over time she might come to take that comfort for granted and forget the love it once engendered in her. This loss of recognition might make her lose his love for good.
The last lines of the piece are a reiteration of her entire request. She wishes for her lover to love her for love’s sake only, not anything else. This will ensure that “Thou mayst love on” throughout all eternity.”
She believes that if only they can come to a place in which their love is based on love alone and not dependent on any physical or mental predilections, then it will last forever.
About Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born in 1806 in Durham, England. She was the firstborn out of twelve children, was educated at home through the works of Milton and Shakespeare. She also began writing poetry at a young age, finishing her first epic poem at the age of twelve. Browning also suffered from a number of maladies from a young age, particularly a lung ailment for which she took morphine for the rest of her life. As a teenager, Browning taught herself Hebrew, and studied Greek classics.
It was in 1826 the Browning anonymously published her first collection, An Essay on Mind and Other Poems. During this time period, Browning’s family suffered financial troubles and ended up settling in London. In the 1830’s Browning first started getting attention for her work. She wrote The Seraphim and Other Poems in 1838 through which she expressed traditional Christian beliefs, which were very dear to her, through Greek tragedies.
The following years of Browning’s life were filled with illness and loss. She spent a year living with her brother Edward at the sea of Torquay. Edward died while sailing there and Browning returned home, living as a recluse for the next five years. in 1844 she published Poems and she met the writer Robert Browning. The two began a romance that was opposed by Elizabeth’s father, eloping in 1846. The collection that is generally considered her best work, Sonnets from the Portuguese, was published in 1850. After publishing a number of works about social injustice, Elizabeth died in Florence in 1861.