‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Lovers have been quoting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s opening line to sonnet 43 of “Sonnets from the Portuguese” for more than 150 years. “Sonnets from the Portuguese” is a collection of 44 sonnets that Elizabeth composed about her husband Robert Browning — sonnets she intended to remain unpublished.
Before meeting her husband, Elizabeth was an invalid confined to her home by her overprotective father. In 1845, she granted Robert Browning an interview at her home and from there love quickly blossomed. A year later, they eloped to Italy, where it is believed Elizabeth composed sonnets in secret before presenting them to Robert. So moved by the poems and recognizing their genius, Robert insisted that Elizabeth publish the collection. Sonnets first appeared on shelves in 1850.
A century later in 1948, The Limited Editions Club produced 1,500 copies of “Sonnets from the Portuguese” illustrated by Valenti Angelo with an introduction by Louis Untermeyer. University of Iowa Special Collections and University Archives holds copy 1,410. Each initial letter of the 44 sonnets is printed in gold ink with a decorative scene in red and blue ink. The illustrations beautifully evoke the corporeal and spiritual love conveyed in the poems. Pictured is the opening initial to sonnet 43.
This month, we invite you to University of Iowa Special Collections and University Archives’ event “Love in the Stacks” on Friday. “Sonnets from the Portuguese” will be on display as well as several other books about love. Other Valentine-related events also will be held this week, including “Blind Date with a Book” Monday and Wednesday and “Express Workshop” with opportunities to make valentine cards out of images from the Iowa Women’s Archive’s collection of vintage cards on Wednesday.
Jillian Phillips is a Robert A. Olson Fellow in the University of Iowa Special Collections and University.
Valentine’s Day-related events at the University of Iowa Main Library, 125 W. Washington St., Iowa City, this week: