If Thou Must Love Me by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

If Thou Must Love Me: Line by Line Explanation

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) wrote ‘If Thou Must Love Me’. It is the sonnet no.14 of her collection named ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ that has 44 love poems. She was a very renowned woman poet of the Victorian era (1830-1890) of English literature. In the sonnets Elizabeth Barrett Browning pours out her heart for her love for her lover and future husband Robert Browning, a great Victorian poet, too.
The sonnet is in the Italian or Petrarchan form of sonnet with the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CD CD CD.

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only.
Meaning … The poet lets her readers know her expectations from her lover. Quite candidly she says that her lover must have towards her only pure, undiluted love, un-tinged by any other sentiment. Quite unabashedly, she states that it is ‘love’ only that should bind her lover to her, nothing else.
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
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day’ –
Meaning …The poet wants that neither her beautiful body, sweet and suave demeanor, nor her mental disposition should be the bedrock of her alliance with her lover. She asks her lover not to love her because of her bewitching smile, and her genteel speaking. She also tells him that her qualities might be very appealing to him, and he could one day discover great convergence in their thoughts, but these traits must not beckon him to her. ‘These transient attractions must be kept away from his love towards her,’ she implores.

For those things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee, – and love so wrought,
May be unwrought so.

The poet has some mild and sane words of advice for her lover. Humans, both men and women, have bodies that age, wither, and fade with time. In the same vein, human traits, mannerisms, and mental attributes change. Even for the same man, his beloved’s sweetness of self may not last indefinitely. Therefore, pleads the author, her lover must discern between true love and love based on transitory fancy. For the bonds of love to endure, lovers must rise above outward signs of attractiveness, and decide if there is something more heavenly that draws them together. Lovers who fall prey to the visible lure in one another might come to grief as the strains of time tears their love apart making them to drift away. The author beseeches her lover to weigh these words in mind.

Love ‘wrought’ with worldly attractions is more likely to ‘unwrought’ than true love.

                      Neither love me for
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.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning doesn’t want her lover to love her out of feelings of pity or empathy. He may wipe her cheeks to comfort her, but such loving gestures may not come often. If she stops to weep in future, her lover would stop to show such effusive signs of caring and sharing. That would strike at the root of their bonding.   

But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity.

In the last two lines of the sonnet If Thou Must Love Me, the poet spells out her own ideas of ‘true love’. She explains how a man should love a woman unconditionally for their mutual attraction to endure. Love driven by lust or desire will diminish, no matter how strong the initial surge might be.


Questions and answers ..

Q1.What does the speaker mean by saying ‘Let it be for nought’?  How does the speaker want her lover to love her?

Answer … Through the words ‘let it be for nought’, the poet beseeches her lover to love her for nothing else, but love’s sake alone.  She doesn’t wish to be loved for her physical attributes like her smile, her looks, and her way of thinking that her lover  finds bewitching.  Any feeling of amorous pity that her lover feels for her should not bind him to her, she urges, because these things, being transitory, might fade away with time.  She wishes so, as she believes that in future when she fails to rekindle the same sensuousness in her lover, he would stop loving her.  She wants her lover’s longing for her to be eternal and everlasting.  Thus, she wishes to be loved for nothing but love.


Q2. What is the reason for asking her lover not to love her for those particular traits?

A2. The poet asks her lover not to love her for those particular traits like physical charm, way of thinking etc., because she very well knows that her physical traits like her smile, voice, ways of thinking, etc. would change wilt with the passage of time and then she would not be loved by her lover’s loving attention waning.  She doesn’t want a courtly impulsive desire-driven kind of love. Instead, but she wants an eternal and everlasting love from her lover.

Q3. Give meanings of

a. A trick of thought-By ‘A trick of time thought’, the speaker means to say she shouldn’t be loved for her trick of thought that is the particular way of thinking which changes with the passage of time and may mislead the person.

b. A sense of pleasant ease on such a day-By this the speaker means her apparent qualities that may provide comfort to her lover for one day or so.

c. Love so wrought may be unwrought so-Love displayed so extraordinarily or elaborately could whiter away with the passage of time.

d. May be change or changed for thee-The facial attributes that shall wither away for wipe out with the passage of time.

Q4. What is referred to by ‘dear pity’?  What is meant by ‘Whipping my cheeks dry”?

Answer … A lover’s heart generally overflows with sympathy, kindness and sensitivity for the slightest distress of the beloved. The word ‘pity’ implies the combination of extraordinary tenderness and warmth that the lover shows to bring solace to the tearful eyes of the woman of his heart. Such sympathy wipes her tears, and restores her joyfulness.

Q5.  How does the poem show the demand of equal status by a woman?

Answer.  The poem was written in the Victorian era when the responsibility of control of the society rested with men. In such a patriarchal set-up, women were relegated to the lower rungs of social order. They were not given the right to caste vote, or to own property, etc.  Considered to be mere social ornaments, they were denied the right to education.  In the poem, the poet cherishes equality of men and women in decision making.  She detests the idea of being a piece of social ornament, and abhors the status of an object of sensual pleasure. Instead, she asserts her desire to be loved truly.  She mocks at the courtly kind of love that prevailed in those times. In doing so, she brings out the meaning of true and genuine love.  The poem underscores values contrary to the type of literature and social ethos found in that era that focused on the physical appearance of the much-adored maidens. Thus, the poem underlines the demand of equal status for a woman.

Q6. Who is the ‘creature’ referred in the above lines?  Why is it called so?  Why not the poet wants to compare herself with the ‘creature’?

Answer .. Through use of the word ‘creature’, the poet alludes to something similar to an animal such as the Whimpering Do or the Flopping Baby bird.  These creatures invoke instant human pity for themselves in the eyes of the people who see them.   They seek to trigger feelings of love and affection from others.  She doesn’t want to equate herself with the ‘creature’, because she finds the idea demeaning and deceitful. The creatures evoke sympathy, get love, but, on getting it in abundance, they flee. The care giver soon forgets them. In other words, no lasting bond between the creatures and humans is established. She doesn’t wish to be forgotten after being loved only for a particular point of time when she is sad.   

[To be continued with more questions and answers]

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