Before she married Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a collection of poems, dedicated to him that would be deemed one of the greatest collections of verse in 19th century England, which was one of the world's most productive eras for poetry. The poems were sonnets, rigidly structured yet bursting with life. Behind the ornate vocabulary and imagery, the poems captured the feeling of relief and joy that the young Elizabeth felt when she was released from her emotional prison by finding someone who was matched to her in intellect and temperament.
It is a complex and romantic story, which I know little about, but which is mentioned elsewhere.
But what I do know is that out of this moving story, and the poetry it produced, only one thing has entered the popular culture, out of context. And that is the line:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
If you are like me, you probably have heard this line, or more likely, variations or parodies on it, from before you can remember. And in three decades of having it referenced, poor ill-cultured fool that I am, I only recently realized that it comes from the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And that while it is beyond cliche today, it comes from fresh, emotionally urgent poetry.
It is rather unfortunate that a complex, important collection of poetry should enter the public consciousness only through a single line, which has lost all context and is used as a worn-out cliche. But given the general attitude towards poetry, even amongst those who should know better, it is not that surprising.