Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s well-known Sonnet 43 goes like this:
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 every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
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.
Compare it to Shakespeare’s immortal Sonnet 81:
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
When considering a fitting epigraph for the second edition of our book, The Sense of Form in Literature and Language (2009), I chose the Shakespeare to commemorate my Marianne (עליה השלום). It puts all other poems in the shade in capturing both the haecceity and the quiddity of the romance of our love, where romance is defined as embodying the triumph of spirit over flesh, in life as in death.
While sitting this afternoon in a neighborhood restaurant and savoring my caviar and oysters in Marianne’s honor, only the Russian adjective бесподобная (literally, ‘without + similar’ [fem.]) floated into my consciousness, to capture my love and her essence. The European languages have nothing to match this Slavic compositum, with the possible exception of French nonpareille, which is, of course, not strictly synonymous in either structure or meaning.
Poets from time immemorial have been trying to capture linguistically the multidimensionality of love. Perhaps the Old Provençal troubadours succeeded, but only in part. No words, no matter how well-turned, can do love justice.