Xl. And therefore if to love can be desert – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

by richibi

from Sonnets from the Portuguese

Xl. And therefore if to love can be desert…

And therefore if to love can be desert,
I am not all unworthy. Cheeks as pale
As these you see, and trembling knees that fail
To bear the burden of a heavy heart, –
This weary minstrel-life that once was girt
To climb Aornus, and can scarce avail
To pipe now ‘gainst the valley nightingale
A melancholy music, — why advert
To these things? O Beloved, it is plain
I am not of thy worth nor for thy place!
And yet, because I love thee, I obtain
From that same love this vindicating grace
To live on still in love, and yet in vain, –
To bless thee, yet renounce thee to thy face.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning


“desert” here, as in “just deserts”, to get what one
deserves, and not incidentally “Just Desserts”, the
sweets emporia, is an example of the affectations of
Romantic poetry that used to annoy me and turn me
away, so that I quickly lost my curiosity as to its
proponents, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Rimbaud, Verlaine,
Baudelaire, were all too ornate, and abstruse, obscure,
for me to see anything but artifice and decoration,
when I required clarity and direction as a young pup

here and there an idea struck a chord that would not
not reverberate, about Truth and Beauty for instance,
or They also serve who only stand and wait“, and of
course the plangent How do I love thee? Let me
count the ways
which had none of these infringing

it took me a while to understand that this was the idiom
of another age, that poetry could transcend its heritage
and become relevant



Aornus, I ask you, is a mountain in, of all places, India,
which Alexander purportedly conquered way before
our time

to “advert/To” is to refer to

despite these irritations, Elizabeth Barrett Browning
remains unexpectedly direct and even still poignant
in her self-disparagement, her self-abnegation, even
after eleven poems, perhaps because she touches,
beyond the idiosyncracies of self-conscious style,
masochistic maybe even neurosis, an underlying
true chord of love in all its quivering manifestations,
one of our major ever existential concerns