The cast of the Brownings’ clasped hands.

Things Worth Remembering: An Ode to Forbidden Passion

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love poem is famous. But her own love story is just as legendary.

Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43, also known as “How Do I Love Thee,” click below:

Perhaps we might have one more poem of unadulterated love before moving on to other matters? Inevitably, it comes from another Romantic. Others have written love poetry before and since, but the Romantics produced most of what we still consider the language of love. It is a language that throws off the courtly traditions of earlier centuries, and seems to abandon itself in a way that still feels modern.

Earlier I mentioned the quasi-religion that Keats, Shelley, Byron, and others created. The places they lived and died in—especially Italy—soon became places of pilgrimage for English-speaking fans. 

Among the figures who did the most to solidify this image of the Romantic poet was Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 

Born in 1806, Elizabeth Barrett suffered various childhood ailments that meant she had to take the opium tincture laudanum, a common enough prescription for the time, but one that likely gave her a certain romantic miasma—whether she wanted it or not.

Her 1844 volume of poems attracted the attention of the poet Robert Browning, who wrote to her, and so one of the great literary relationships was formed. 

Their courtship was carried out in secret, given Elizabeth’s fear of her father’s disapproval. Once the news of their marriage came out, she was indeed disinherited. 

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