Monday, March 14, 2005

Sonnets from the Portuguese XXXVI

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

When we met first and loved, I did not build
Upon the event with marble. Could it mean
To last, a love set pendulous between
Sorrow and sorrow? Nay, I rather thrilled,
Distrusting every light that seemed to gild
The onward path, and feared to over-lean
A finger even. And, though I have grown serene
And strong since then, I think that God has willed
A still renewable fear . . . O love, O troth . . .
Lest these enclasped hands should never hold,
This mutual kiss drop down bewteen us both
As an unowned thing, once the lips being cold.
And Love, be false! if he, to keep one oath
Must lose one joy, by his life's star foretold.

* * *

This is another of those lovely sonnets. Like the one I posted before, it shows Browning's fear that her husband's love for her might not last. However, this one is more about how their relationship as a whole might not last. Maybe, she thinks, it never was meant to be. And if it isn't meant to be, they should both forget everything, pretend it never was. As she adds in the last two lines, she doesn't even want their love to last, if it should take any of Robert's happiness away.

And that's true love, isn't it? to want the other's happiness more even than we want to be with them. The Brownings' true love paid off, though: because they were willing even to sacrifice their relationship to each other's happiness, they got the relationship and both of their happiness. It seems we can never truly enjoy a secondary good unless we have let it go and put the higher good in its place. (The same old paradox: He wishes to save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life will find it.) If we have the highest good, lower goods will follow, but if we set our sights on a lower good, we may lose all. The highest love, good for the other, must be placed first.

How many people forget this nowadays. We imagine that our love is measured by how intensely we want to be with the other person. We forget that although this can be good, even more important is how much we put the other's good above our own.

This is one of the reasons I love poetry so much: it says such deep things in such a crystalized form. If the themes in the poem are true, they seem to ennoble our heart without our even trying.


Judit said...

Yes, yes, yes! Awesome possum, Sheila! That's perfect! Totally true! (I approve.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, I also agree. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you." Also, true love is to will the good of the other. True love is when your happiness counts as much as my happiness. But even us married people need reminding of this often.