How do I love thee? | Guide to Daily Reading 12/15/22

Nothing happened today. Well, that’s not quite true. On this date in 1846 The Hakluyt Society was founded “for the purpose of encouraging the publication of books of travel, and particularly of re-issuing the works of its namesake” (The Booklover’s Almanac)

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The Hakluyt Society is named after Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616), collector and editor of narratives of voyages and travels and other documents relating to English interests overseas, his most celebrated work being The Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation. His name was almost certainly pronounced hak’loowt, the family having come from the forest of Clwyd in the historic county of Radnor.

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Daily Reading:

  • Mrs. Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese

From The Poetry Foundation

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s exciting and excited sonnet takes part in the centuries-old tradition of amorous sonnets and sonnet sequences (as old as the sonnet form, as Dante and Petrarch), but also draws on the new Victorian kind of poem called the dramatic monologue, which her husband Robert Browning helped to invent. In dramatic monologue a single character’s speech, depicted in real time, reveals by irony or indirection that character’s inmost thoughts, and makes him or her seem present, as if on stage. In dramatic monologue, however, the speaker is never the poet herself. Here, we must identify the vivid, distractable lover who speaks as Elizabeth Barrett Browning—indeed, we can set the poem beside what we know of her life.

That life involves one of the great love stories in literary history. Well-known as a poet by the early 1840s, Elizabeth Barrett lived as an invalid in the London house of her strict father, who supported her writing but did not want her, nor her siblings, ever to marry. Robert Browning, five years younger and much less successful, admired her poetry, as she admired his. They exchanged letters, he paid her weekly visits, and their literary friendship soon became something stronger: “I love your verse with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” he wrote in January 1845, “and I love you too.” Despite her illness, the pair made plans to elope and live in Italy: in September 1846 those plans were fulfilled. (The Brownings would live there together until her death in 1861; they had one son.)

Over the twenty months of their clandestine courtship, Elizabeth and Robert wrote each other almost six hundred letters, most of which were published after her death. In those same months, Elizabeth also began a series of sonnets about their courtship, shown to Robert only after their elopement, and published in 1850 under the title Sonnets from the Portuguese. The Portuguese poet Luís de Camoëns was famous for his love sonnets; Barret Browning’s title referred, as well, to her earlier poem “Caterina to Camoens,” one of Robert’s favorites. The title also followed the pretense—albeit a flimsy one—that the sonnets were merely translations, with no basis in the poets’ lives. Parts of the sequence, if not the whole, remain popular today, especially the penultimate sonnet, which begins, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” READ MORE