Penned in Passion, Still Stealing Hearts

Article excerpt

Byline: NICK MASON

A SONNET penned by a sick middle-aged woman in the midst of her passion for a young admirer was named Britain's favourite love poem yesterday.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's How Do I Love Thee? one of a collection of poems written for Robert Browning, with whom she eloped, still strikes a chord with romantics, a BBC poll to coincide with National Poetry Day reveals.

Other poems in the top ten include W B Yeats's He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven, Robert Burns's A Red, Red Rose and William Shakespeare's sonnets Let Me Not To The Marriage of True Minds and Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer's Day?

The only postwar poet to find a place in the nation's top ten was W H Auden, with Stop All The Clocks, which articulates the heartbreak of bereavement and was featured in Four Weddings and A Funeral.

Browning's How Do I Love Thee? was the 43rd of 44 works in her Sonnets from the Portuguese.

The odd title - they had nothing to do with Portugal - was added on publication in 1850 to hide the fact from her estranged father that the collection had been written to fellow poet Robert Browning during one of literature's most famous courtships. 'The Portuguese' is said to have been his pet name for her.

The sonnets started when she was ill and near-suicidal, blaming herself for her brother's death by drowning, through to her decision to elope and cut herself off from her family.

The couple had met when Elizabeth was a reclusive invalid, still living under her father's roof in Wimpole Street, London.

Browning wrote her a fan letter, then visited her, declaring his love a day later.

Elizabeth, six years his elder, could not at first believe he truly loved her but they married in 1846, when she was 40. Love lasted, bringing a son, and she died in her husband's arms in 1861. Her poem was the 'clear winner', according to the BBC, which received hundreds of telephone votes.

Daisy Goodwin, who organised the poll, said: 'The top ten shows that as a nation we identify with every shade of emotion. …