When first coming into view, I knew I had to have you. You were taller than most and your slim profile caused you to stand out. Even on the surface you appeared to be different from the others. Your delicate manner only made me desire you all the more. Visible gold initials identifying you gave me a hint of what you might be about. My initial impression was rewarded. You were be far beyond my first thoughts. I could not resist taking take you home with me.
Had I not titled this piece as being about a book it would be easy to surmise I had been recently smitten by a chance meeting of a lovely woman. The “lady” I met is the most beautiful copy of “Sonnets to the Portuguese” I have ever seen found yesterday at my favorite used book store. The photo above is an engraving from the book.
The “Sonnets…” were love poems written by Elizabeth Barrett in 1845-1846 for Robert Browning while they were carrying on their mostly secret courtship. Initially she was hesitant to publish the poems, feeling that they were too personal. However, once married her husband insisted that they were the best sequence of English-language sonnets since Shakespeare’s time and urged her to publish them. To offer the couple some privacy, she decided that she would publish them as supposed translations of foreign sonnets eventually settling on “Portuguese” (after Robert’s nickname for Elizabeth of “my little Portuguese”).
The forty-third “Sonnet to the Portuguese” begins “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” and is one of the most famous poems in the world and has been very popular since first published in 1850. Last night looking through the book I was struck by a previously over looked “Sonnet” that has been added to my personal favorites; Number 20.
Beloved, my Beloved, when I think
That thou wast in the world a year ago,
What time I sate alone here in the snow
And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink
No moment at thy voice … but, link by link,
Went counting all my chains, as if that so
They never could fall off at any blow
Struck by thy possible hand … why, thus I drink
Of life’s great cup of wonder! Wonderful,
Never to feel thee thrill the day or night
With personal act or speech,—nor ever cull
Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull,
Who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.
OR A modernized version interpretation
My darling, my love, when I think
That you were in the world a year ago,
While I sat by myself, out here in the cold,
Seeing no sign of you, just silence;
I never heard your voice. I just went over all my reasons
For being always sad, cementing them
Till it seemed they could never lift, no matter
What you tried…But then I tasted joy,
All the joy that life could give!
I couldn’t see then, that I would ever experience
Thrills like this, brought on by you–your words,
Some sense of you I never saw before now!
I must be as dull as an unbeliever,
Who can’t feel that God is here, though He is out of sight.
I have a Nook, thanks to my son and love it. When I travel the little marvel saves me from having to carry the weight of books. However, there is nothing like the look, smell, texture and quality of a real book. I fear in time reading from a book will mostly be forgotten, but I hope there will be a few diehards who relish the full experience of a book as I do. I am grateful for the joy reading has always brought me and for my love of books, most especially, the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning that moves me down to the core of my being.
Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings,
and making music with them.