Sep. 12, 2009

Sonnet 43: How do I love thee, let me count the ways

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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 everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
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.

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways..." by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, (books by this author) born in New York City (1892). He went to college to become a lawyer, but he fell in love with literature and decided to devote his life to it. At the time, the publishing world was a kind of gentlemen's club and Knopf had a hard time fitting in because he was Jewish. He was the first Jewish employee at Doubleday.

One of his first projects was to republish all of Joseph Conrad's books in a set. He went to visit the writer H.L. Mencken, because he knew Mencken loved Conrad and would publicize the books. Mencken said, "We were on good terms at once … I recall especially his mustache: so immensely black that it seemed beyond the poor talents of nature." Knopf went on to publish many of Mencken's books and Mencken later said, "He is by my standards the perfect publisher."

At the time that he got into the publishing business, before television and widespread radio, people said that Americans didn't read books — they just read the newspapers. He thought that Americans might be more likely to read good books if books were beautiful to look at. He used beautiful, easy-to-read type and high-quality paper, and he was the first publisher to cover his books with brightly colored jackets.

When Knopf founded his own publishing company, he didn't have enough money to publish big-name American authors, so he published European authors instead. Most American publishers didn't care about European literature, so Knopf was able to cheaply publish writers like Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus. When several of his authors won the Nobel Prize in literature, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. became known as one of the best literary publishing houses.

It's the birthday of American satirist H.L. Mencken, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1880, who said things like:

"No matter how much a woman loved a man, it would still give her a glow to see him commit suicide for her."

And, "The capacity of human beings to bore one another seems to be vastly greater than that of any other animals. Some of their most esteemed inventions have no other apparent purpose, for example, the dinner party of more than two, the epic poem, and the science of metaphysics."

On this day in 1846, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning got married — secretly — at St. Marylebone Parish Church in London. She was 39, an invalid, and reliant on morphine to ease her pain, and she had never been married because her father forbade it. She was a poet famous around the world. Robert Browning (books by this author) was a famous poet, too, six years younger than she, and started the courtship by writing her a letter telling her just how much he admired her writing. In January 1845, he wrote:

"I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, — and this is no offhand complimentary letter that I shall write, — whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me — for in the first flush of delight I thought I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration …"

Robert Browning continued in that first letter: "I can give a reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought — but in this addressing myself to you, your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises together. I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart — and I love you too."

Elizabeth Barrett (books by this author) responded promptly: "I thank you, dear Mr. Browning, from the bottom of my heart. You meant to give me pleasure by your letter — and even if the object had not been answered, I ought still to thank you."

She went on to write a long letter asking him to give a few words of criticism so that she might improve her writing craft.

The courtship continued in secret for a year and a half, and then, on this day of the clandestine wedding in 1846, Browning mailed her off a letter that he'd written the day prior, which said: "Words can never tell you, however, — form them, transform them anyway, — how perfectly dear you are to me — perfectly dear to my heart and soul. I look back, and in every one point, every word and gesture, every letter, every silence — you have been entirely perfect to me — I would not change one word, one look.

During their courtship, Elizabeth Barrett was composing sonnets for Robert, which she presented to him as a wedding gift.

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