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On Saying “I Love You” Only When You Mean It: Robert Browning on Protecting the Sincerity of Sentiment from Desecration by Misuse

On Saying “I Love You” Only When You Mean It: Robert Browning on Protecting the Sincerity of Sentiment from Desecration by Misuse

Just as we have drained the word friend of meaning by misuse and overuse, we are constantly abrading the integrity of the word love with insincerity of sentiment. Adrienne Rich wrote that in any honorable relationship, we earn the right to use the word love through “a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” But what happens when the snake bites its own tail and the very truthfulness which this process presupposes flees from the object of its end result? The consequent paradox is that the more we say we “love” things and people we merely like — or admire, or appreciate, or wish for — the more fearful we become of saying “I love you” with unguarded sincerity to those who truly merit it. Amid this maelstrom of daunted and daunting confusions, few things are more courageous than to stand behind the sincerity of those words with equal parts unselfconscious tenderness and unflinching conviction.

It may seem at first glance that Robert Browning (May 7, 1812–December 12, 1889) was particularly careless with how he used the word love when, after reading a volume of Elizabeth Barrett’s poetry, he wrote to her: “I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett, …. and I love you too.” But Browning was a poet — that is, a person tasked with honoring the integrity of words and protecting it with absolute precision of sentiment in language — so he meant exactly what he wrote. In what remains one of the grandest and most beautiful true love stories in the human record, the two poets soon eloped and lived in love until death did them part.

Robert Browning

Early in their exquisite epistolary courtship, Browning addressed the question of sincerity in the language of love. In a letter from February of 1845, found in The Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (public library | free ebook) — the spectacular volume that gave us Elizabeth Barrett on art, suffering, and what makes life worth living — Browning writes:

Dear Miss Barrett, —

People would hardly ever tell falsehoods about a matter, if they had been let tell truth in the beginning, for it is hard to prophane one’s very self, and nobody who has, for instance, used certain words and ways to a mother or a father could, even if by the devil’s help he would, reproduce or mimic them with any effect to anybody else that was to be won over — and so, if “I love you” were always outspoken when it might be, there would, I suppose, be no fear of its desecration at any after time.

By the end of August, Browning’s conviction in the purity of these three words has only intensified despite Barrett’s initial reservations that her severe disability would render her unlovable in the long run. He writes:

Let me say now — this only once — that I loved you from my soul, and gave you my life, so much of it as you would take, — and all that is done, not to be altered now: it was, in the nature of the proceeding, wholly independent of any return on your part. I will not think on extremes you might have resorted to; as it is, the assurance of your friendship, the intimacy to which you admit me, now, make the truest, deepest joy of my life — a joy I can never think fugitive while we are in life….

Six week later, when Barrett probes what Browning means when he says he loves her, he responds:

I consent to lay most stress on that fact of facts that I love you, beyond admiration, and respect, and esteem and affection even, and do not adduce any reason which stops short of accounting for that.

The two poets surrendered to the unaccountable unreasonableness of love and wed within a year. They lived out their remaining days together in Florence, where many of the era’s most prominent artists and writers came to visit, consistently remarking upon the sincerity and splendor of the couple’s love.

Bronze cast of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s clasped hands by the pioneering sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who met the couple in Italy in 1853. Nathaniel Hawthorne would later write of Hosmer’s piece as capturing “the individuality and heroic union of two high, poetic lives.” (Photograph courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Complement this particular portion of The Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning with philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how you know whether you love somebody and poet David Whyte on the true meanings of love and heartbreak, then devour other beautiful love letters by Kahlil Gibran, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, and Hannah Arendt.

Published September 25, 2017




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