In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love . . .” Alfred, Lord Tennyson
A little while ago—pre-pandemic—I was at a thrift store and noticed a young couple browsing through the books. The young man found a book of poetry and began to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 43" aloud to his girlfriend. The store was almost deserted and very quiet, darkness pressing against the plate glass windows; his voice carried.
You could tell he’d started out semi-jokingly (“Baby, I’m gonna read you a poem!”) but then had gotten caught up in the beauty of the poem, his voice becoming more resonant and expressive as he read.
About two-thirds of the way through, though, he stopped, with an embarrassed little laugh. I guess he’d realized everyone was listening to him and that some people, including me, were sneaking smiling peeks at them both: a lanky blond guy in a ratty Army coat, lounging against the bookshelf, and a girl with clouds of dark, curly hair, leaning on him, gazing up into his face.
I wanted to tell him not to stop, to finish the poem, one of the greatest love poems ever written in English. I wanted to tell him not to be embarrassed to enjoy and share a beautiful thing. I wanted to tell him the love story behind the poem: how Elizabeth Barrett, a plain-looking near-invalid confined to home by a ruthless father—a woman who never thought she would find romantic love—was wooed and won by a handsome, kind fellow poet who married her, supported her work, and adored her to the end of her days. I wanted to tell him the poem was from a collection Elizabeth had called Sonnets from the Portuguese, not because the people of Portugal had anything to do with writing it but because “the Portuguese” was Robert’s pet name for her: dark hair, dark eyes, just like the young woman listening to the poem in that thrift store some 170 years later. I wanted to tell them both I was happy for them, so obviously and radiantly in love.
Of course, I did none of those things. I went on with my shopping, and so did they, and then I walked out into the clear, cold night, looking up at the stars, feeling lucky to be in a world that despite its worries, griefs, and pain also has so much love and such beautiful ways to express it.
Keep reading, writing, creating, and sharing beauty this month, everyone. We need it now more than ever.
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 every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
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.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! And, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.