Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Elizabeth Barret Browning's Treatment of Love Depicted in Her Poem, "How Do I love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways"

Love is a special gift given by God to every human being. Love is a deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude towards a person, rising from kinship, recognition of attractive qualities, or a sense of underlying oneness. Love is also defined as a feeling of intense desire and attraction towards a person with whom one is disposed to make a pair; the emotion of sex and romance (http://dictonary.reference.com/seach?q:love. May 2004). From the above definitions, it can be concluded that love is an intense emotional feeling that relates to an attachment.

Every individual has his/ her own definition to explain what love is. It depends on the person in interpreting the love; it may be either an attachment or a sexual desire, or both of them. But love is more than a hug, a kiss, and feelings of desire. Love can be showed through a sensitive attitude, caring and sincere action, then emotionally love will appear and grow up. However, love is an emotional feeling that cannot be defined in detail. Katherine Hepburn defines:

Love is something that you will take, but it relates with something you will give. You give because of love and cannot stop. If you are very lucky, maybe you will be loved. It is beautiful, but love does not always like that.
(Ekeren, 2003: 107)

Love has wide scope; there is love for God, families, love between persons (man and woman), love for nation, etc. When love comes, it usually does not concern position, authority, wealth, and physical appearance.

Love needs a struggle, sacrifice, appreciation and expectation to pursuit happiness together, but after all, love can lose if there is no mutual understanding and honesty. Everyone owns different way to love and to find love. It depends on the circumstances and person involved in the situation. One usually has to struggle to get his/ her lover and to maintain the love.
This study concerns an analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s treatment of love depicted in her poem, How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a handicapped spinster who does not believe that Robert Browning, a poet, will love her. However, Robert Browning can prove his love to her, and this raises her self-confidence to face the love and her self- consciousness. She draws her feelings in her poem entitled How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways. This poem not only shows the raises of her self-confidence and self-consciousness but also her self-sufficient toward love.

The poem chosen to analyze is one of the 44 series of sonnets written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Here she has selected the 43rd series of them in which the first line reads How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways. Here she will discuss the treatments of love depicted in the poem of Elizabeth Barrett Browning entitled How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. The discussion will cover love as the source of self-consciousness, of self-confidence, and of self-sufficient.
Through this poem, the writer wants to show how love influences human life, especially for the lovers. Other matters that are not related to the topic will not be discussed.
The term ‘Love’ has many definitions. Each person has their own interpretation of love. It depends on their individual desires and needs. Megan Tressider (2004: 13) says that love is a complex and important thing to human being’s emotion, as it relates to emotion. Love is also something intangible. Love is an evolution that always changes and grows. Each person has different ways in representing their feeling of love. This is also shown by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem. She shows her love by writing a series of sonnet dedicated to her beloved husband, Robert Browning.

Angela Leighton says that How do I love thee? Let me count the ways (1986: 91) is one of the lines in Elizabeth’s poem representing the love which is so intimate and so exclusively addressed to her husband. The sonnet of the 43rd expresses her love for her husband. Thus the sonnet is called a true love poem between the poetess and her lover.
This is a love so confident of its object. Moreover it seems so self-celebrating. It contains an expression of self-consciousness, of self-confidence, and of self-sufficiency. Its scope becomes the expression of her whole life, its ambitions and its banalities, its heights and its levels.
4.1 Love As the Source of Self-Consciousness
According to Megan Tressider (2004: 13) love is a complex and important thing to human being’s emotion; therefore, it can be comprehended why Elizabeth becomes so confused when she is falling in love. As one of human being’s emotion, obviously love can influence one’s life. Sometimes it becomes the source of happiness, of spirit, and of kindliness, or also an enragement, despair, and hatred.
As written in the biography of Elizabeth, she has experienced a difficult life related to love. Love is a horrible thing to her. She is only fond of her father and brother as both of them are her only family. Then, for the time she recognizes love between two opposite sexes, she makes a mistake by falling in love with a wrong man, a married man named Hugh Stuart Boyd. He has a wife and a daughter whose age is the same with Elizabeth’s. The first time she falls in love makes her broken hearted, so when Browning comes and says that he loves her, she becomes confused, she is not sure whether he is telling the truth. Moreover, when she realizes her physical condition; she is older than Browning, invalid, and recluse. Besides, her father does not permit one of his children to get married, whereas Browning wishes to marry her. The confusion of choosing between her father and her love to Browning brings a conflict situation into her heart. On one hand, she does not want to hurt her father with her disobedience. On the other hand, she wishes to get away from her father’s influence and it will come true if she marries Browning.

This is an early time of her consciousness that love does not fully hurt. Initially she hesitates at Browning’s proposal to marry her. She even writes a letter to Browning showing her disbelief in marriage as seen in the following quotation:
When I was a child I heard two married women talking. One said to the other … ‘The most painful part of marriage is the first year, when the lover changes into the husband by slow degrees.’ The other woman agreed, as a matter of fact is agreed to. I listened with my eyes & ears, & never forgot it... as you observe. It seemed to me, child as I was a dreadful thing to have a husband by such a process. (Kintner, 1846: ii 853).

The above quotation is an anecdot that talks about the other side of the gender barrier. This anecdot shows a dreadful thing to marriage especially for women. That is what Elizabeth heard when she was a child. She does not believe that marriage can make her happy. She thinks that husbands change slowly and stop loving their wives. Moreover, they change into other men. However, Browning’s constant efforts melt her frozen heart. Love gradually grows in her heart for Browning.
In her sonnet How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, she emphasizes her deep love to
Browning and she describes her love for him as a free, pure, and passionate love as quoted in the following:
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right; I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 7-10)

In the above quotation, she emphasizes that love is not heart breaking as what her father has told her. At first, she thinks that love hurts as what she felt when she lost her brother. She has ever thought she is the cause of her brother’s death, but Browning’s love wakes her consciousness of the meaning of true love.

One source of Elizabeth’s unhappiness is her being dependent upon others, especially her father. He means everything to her; the source of her power, the inspiration of her poems, and the hope of bliss. One thing she does not know that one will never be fully happy if s/he always depends on others, as people cannot eliminate their broken hearted if they still depend on others to get support and affection (Gray, 2002: 145). To make parents happy is the obligation of every child, but it does not mean that s/he sacrifices his/her own happiness as what Elizabeth does. Every single thing she does is for her father. His power is a crippling dependence and powerlessness for her. When the time comes for her to make her decision to look for her own happiness, and secedes from tyrannical rules of her father in her life, it becomes a new chapter in her life. It is a difficult thing to do, but somehow she can pass it. Although she does not fully forget her father, she still hopes his forgiveness that she never gets.
One of her consciousness about love is that she cannot forget her suffering in babyhood. When she loses her mother, catches up with the death of her brother, and realizes her natural handicap, but she takes a blessing and goodness from these grief by getting love from Browning. Love is finally the one which makes her smile, breath, and cry in her life as seen in the following quotation:
…,—I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life! — …
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 12-13)

In the above quotation, Elizabeth emphasizes that love does not only give her happiness but also grief, but she realizes that it is life, her destiny and she can handle it because she loves Browning in all the way he is.

4.2 Love as the Source of Self-Confidence
From the early line of her poem, it is implicitly shown that Elizabeth has a big self confidence because of her love. It can be seen in the following quotation:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 1)

The above quotation shows Elizabeth’s over self-confidence in love. The question she raises does not need any answer; she is the only one who can answer it. As the matter of fact, it does not seem like a question but a declaration of her self-confidence in love. In her past time, she views love as something which can not be expected from others. It is only her father whom properly she loves though he always dominates her with his power. The other person she loves is her brother, as seen in the following quotation:
If I ever loved any human being I love this dear Brother...the partner of my pleasures of my literary toils. My attachment to him is literally devoted! (Glimpses into My Own Life, 1820: 129).

In the above quotation, Elizabeth emphasizes her love to her brother. He is the one she loves after her father and he is the one who understands her passion in literature. She does not need to love any other men although it does not mean she does not want it because she has no self confidence to love other persons. When she knows Browning and falls in love with him, her self-confidence raises to discharge her father’s influence in her life as it is seen in the following:
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, ad they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 7-9)

In the above quotation, Elizabeth emphasizes that she has strength and independence to reject the authority of any other persons especially her father. She says that her love is free, pure and passionate to Browning. Before they meet, Elizabeth has always obeyed her father and put in authority under him, including his hostility towards marriage which means that it is forbidden to marry for all of his children. It is something she has always accepted, but when she meets Browning, it is for the first time she is questioning the obedience to her father. She does not like making her father sad for she can never be grateful enough for the indulgence he has shown her, rare in a father, with regard to her studies and her writing, and the pride he has shown in her face. Above all, for his support at the time of her brother’s death. But then she thinks that he bears her life at risk. Mander says that this is the time she is confused to choose either the proposal from Browning or the love from her beloved father (Mander, 1980: 46).
To defy father and desert his house is bad enough, but to get married is worse. Her father never allows her to marry, in other hand, she cannot let Browning sacrifice himself to her. He is so active and so strong to love an invalid woman who perhaps cannot be a real wife.
Eventually she chooses Browning, she decides to abide by Browning’s plan for them. It is a sign of her sudden maturity that she takes the most importance of her life to get married without her father’s authority in it. She feels free to love any persons she loves. She does not care that her father does not agree with her life’s choice. She has a pure love to Browning therefore she dares to take the decision to love him.
For forty years of her life, Elizabeth lived under the shadow and power of her beloved father, and to him she dedicated all her early volumes of poetry. One of Elizabeth’s own tributes, To My Father on His Birthday (1826) acknowledges his power to inspire her and to make all other loves seem poor by comparison. The poem also acknowledges his power to inspire her writing. She ties herself in imaginative and emotional dependence to the figure of the father. His authority and power are the source of her creativity. It is her father above all whose inspiration she courts and whose oppression she feels. Those inspirations become everywhere apparent in her works. She courts her father’s attention and her father’s smile as the reward of her writing. His authority is imaginatively her desire to make her own, a desire to overcome her fear to face the world. But as a poetess, Elizabeth desires strength and independence for herself. So there is a conflict in this chosen role. She desires to reject the authority of her father, and to gain strength and independence for herself. This happens only after her marriage in 1846 that she is able to write a poem which powerfully repudiates the authority, has so magisterially dominated her own self. It is not her father anymore who inspires her to write a poem. She writes a poem based on her own interpretations and it is not to please any human beings as she does it previously. She has self-confidence to write over her interpretation because of Browning’s love for her. Love for Elizabeth is a thing that makes someone life, happy, and also sad:
__..., I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!__...
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line:13-14)
In the above quotation, her vision of love shows that love is a feeling of intangible. People can survive to live because of love. Love makes people smile or happy but on the other hand, love also makes people cry and sad. But, the most important, happiness is not always shown by smile only and sadness by crying. It is because happiness and sadness cannot be parted, it becomes one in daily life. Sadness and happiness will become a blessing if people can face it wisely. And love will make all things great matter. That is what happens in Elizabeth’s life. She lives for love as love is the power in her life.

4.3 Love as the Source of Self – Sufficient
The first time Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning make correspondence, their letters are flourishing for several weeks. At last, Elizabeth allows Robert to visit her. A day or two later he writes her a hasty and ill-timed declaration of his feelings. Elizabeth considers it an intemperate thing. This early misunderstanding is succeeded by others and then love letters are flourishing again between them. From the beginning of their relationship, Elizabeth broadly hints that she is an elaborate woman as she has a problem with male vanity. She does not want to admit male vanity including in love that is given by man to her. Robert gives credit to her inherent superiority. He admits that she is superior to him in many things. Therefore he hopes her sympathy and assistance of her superior. This credit makes Elizabeth tend towards a more generous, if exaggerated, praise of the man. She looks for an imaginative rights in loving, that is her right to be the lover and not the beloved. A competition rises between them to be the lover, not the beloved.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quite need, by sun and candle-light.
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 1-6)

In the above quotation she offers her love to the beloved by giving a question but then she answers it by herself. It needs no answer. She knows that she loves him with all her heart and she gives her soul to love Robert until the end of her life. The poem does not invoke the presence or the attention or the reciprocity of the loved object. She portrays herself as both a conscious and self-sufficient person in this poem. She is conscious of the power of her love, and she is sufficient to be the lover. The effect of this is one of verbal self- sufficiency and self- confidence. The beloved is there, but he is not exactly needed. What is needed is that the poetess herself should have the courage to speak,’my soul can reach…,’ and she will love him even he does not care for her. To love becomes her purpose in life. She seems satisfied with a phrase merely. Its scope becomes that of her whole life; her ambitions, her banalities, her heights, and her levels. It is the mark of her love poems that she does not struggle for the attention of the beloved, she does not plead or admire. Then she portrays the love with a ‘grief’ as follows:
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 10)
In the above quotation she remembers of the death of her mother and her brother. It is consciousness of a grief which once devastated her imagination. She has exhausted by this grief, but she can pass it because she is aware that that is only her old time. The grief suffices her to be a strong woman to face the love which Robert gives to her. She loves Robert and does not care of the refusal from him if it happens.
I love thee with a love I seem to lose
With my lost saints,-…
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 11-12)
In the above quotation, she realizes her grief again. Instead, she here points that love makes her not a good girl as before. Love makes her forget all her ‘goodness’ in childhood as her father wants to be. She realizes that her love to Robert hurts her father but she wants to suffice her life to love him. Although her father considers her as a disobeyed children. She will still love him even until death makes them apart as shown in the following quotation:

…if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 13-14)

In the above quotation, she emphasizes that she will love Robert until the end of her life. It is why she does not need reciprocity from Robert to love her. She does not plead to be loved by him. Love suffices for her, until the death comes to her.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens

Sunday Morning
by Wallace Stevens
The poem asks the question, "What is the relationship between death and beauty?" Does death degrade beauty or enhance it? The title refers to the resurrection on Easter Sunday, how death led to a greater beauty. Some critics suggest that the poem is a denunciation of the Easter resurrection; rather than being at church, the character in stanza one is lounging amidst the sensual beauty of her surroundings.

In stanza one, Stevens offers a picture of beauty. Remember that his wife was a beauty queen and not a great wit; she didn't appreciate or understand his poems.

In all of the following stanzas save for the final two, he asks a question and then answers it with imagery that implies an idea.

In St. II his question is: "Why should beauty die?" He answers it with a series of questions and images that offer this idea, I think: Divinity (which is linked to death) comes to us in material beauty when we're alive; likewise, it's this earthly beauty which offers us a glimpse of the beauty that comes after death; the final images imply that beauty (both temporal and divine) lies in all things.

In St. III he asks "Isn't God separate from mankind?" in the first three lines. He answers this statement/question with images that imply we our humanity is intertwined with God's divinity. He asks a second question here: "Are we too human to reach heaven?" He answers it with an enigmatic "all will be resolved at the end."

In St. IV he asks, "What if natural beauty disappears?" and answers it by implying that all things pass; nothing beautiful lasts.

In St. V he asks, "Don't we need something beautiful on earth to last forever to remind us of divine beauty?" He answers with "Tough. Death is the mother of beauty -- nothing is beautiful without its impermanence on earth; the only permanence comes after death; interestingly, he links sex to death in this stanza as do so many other carpe diem poets.

In St. VI he asks "Is there any change after we die?" or, "Is there a second death or any decay after we die?" He answers with a series of questions that imply that the beauty of the afterlife is indescribable and transcendent and is the source of earthly beauty (kinda like Plato's cave metaphor).

In St. VII he stops asking questions and offers pictures of how we should worship -- sexual, primal, violent. He ends this stanza by suggesting that friendships now are better because of death. If you saw Shadowlands (movie) there's a great line that echoes this: "The suffering in the future makes our happiness now possible." or words to that effect. Ask the kids who saw the play if they remember this line. I don't know if it was in the play, though.

In St. VIII he suggests that Christ and the angels who were in the tomb on Easter "Sunday Morning" are no longer there -- they are part of the divine beauty in heaven now. And while beauty is underfood (with the deer and quail -- remember his great poem "13 ways of looking at a blackbird" and the wonderful stanza "O thin men of Haddam,/ Why do you imagine golden birds?/ Do you not see how the blackbird/ Walks around the feet/ Of the women arounnd you?") He ends this stanza with an image of the dying birds to show how death and beauty are inextricably linked.

In short, the poem is one of those "conversations between self and soul" that Donne and Frost and lots of other poets used to write.