Love endures in poet’s words
By Stella Pope Duarte
A poet’s voice has a way of lasting from generation to generation and, in each era, the poet’s words ring true. Born in England on March 6, 1806, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the author of the poem, How Do I Love Thee, which has endured the test of time and is considered one of the finest poems of the Victorian era. Most students in high school will, at one time or another, study her poem and listen to the rhythm and cadence of its words, perhaps opening their hearts to the poem’s deeper meaning, a meaning that transcends time.
Her opening stanzas begin with a question: How do I love thee? Then she begins a series of answers to the question posed: Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach, etc. She sees love as a “quiet need,” and as something freely, purely and passionately given. By the end of the poem, Elizabeth has given profound new insights to something we often take for granted. Writing the poem was also her way of expressing her love for her husband, Robert Browning, who had introduced himself to her as an avid fan of her poetry via letters. He wrote: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett.” Unfortunately, Robert Browning was considered a lower-class gold-digger by Elizabeth’s father and, due to her marriage to him, she was disinherited from her father’s estate and lived most of her married life abroad in Europe.
Beginning her writing career at the age of six, Elizabeth took on the social issues of the day in her poems, especially the enslavement of Africans in Jamaica where her family owned land and businesses. Her adherence to the belief that slavery was cruel and violated human rights led her to put pen to paper and write rousing poems such as The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point in which she describes the brutal beating and rape of a black woman who, even in the midst of suffering horrific cruelty, still cursed the slave-owners.
What does an English poet writing in the 1800s mean to Latinos in Arizona today? First of all, Elizabeth used her artistic abilities to send vital messages of love and hope to heal the sufferings of those around her. In a similar fashion, hundreds of artists living in Arizona and across the Southwest have responded to the unjust treatment of our immigrant community by employing their artistic abilities to challenge the destructive waves of prejudice and racism that rise again and again to injure thousands and victimize innocents with abusive, unjust laws.
In spite of suffering chronic illnesses, Elizabeth was able to rise above the discrimination that existed against women writers in the masculine-dominated Victorian era and continued throughout her life to look deep into her own heart for the things that truly mattered to her. In considering the women recently honored as Trailblazers in Arizona, and those who shared in creating the PBS Special, Makers: Women Who Make America, I am grateful for the women, mothers, grandmothers, tías and primas who have stood up to the cruelties they have encountered, expressing in so many ways to family, friends and community the same love Elizabeth wrote about in her poems.
The last words of Elizabeth’s poem, How Do I Love Thee?, summarize the world of love in a most profound way, and lead us to understand that love on earth is only the beginning of eternal love:
I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.
Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in South Phoenix. She began her award-winning career in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father told her that her destiny was to become a writer. Contact her at stellapopeduarte.com.