Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Limited Editions Club

I love poetry. But I really love love poetry. And this is about as love as it gets. Elizabeth Barret Browning is right up there with some of my favorite love poets like Neruda, Denise Levertov, Robert Herrick, Joe Pulichino, and Walt Whitman. Her poems seem to me to lean both on her love for Robert Browning and on her faith. Both of those aspects weave their ways in and out of every sonnet in this book.

According to what I’ve read in my research, she apparently came up behind Robert Browning after breakfast and stuffed the poems into his jacket pocket, told him to read them and toss them if they weren’t good, and fled up to her room. Wow! He read most of the poems and ran upstairs to …tell they were not just good, but exquisite. What a gift to him. What a gift to us that he decided they were too good not to share with the world. In the introduction by Louis Untermeyer, we learn that Robert Browning said, “I dared not reserve to myself the finest sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare’s.”.

The title page.

For me poetry is ideally suited for the fine press treatment, whether it’s letterpress chapbooks and broadsides or a finely bound book as we have here. This particular book is the 60 year old Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition illustrated by Valenti Angelo. It’s amazing to me that you can still pick up copies of this edition for under $100, even with it’s limitation of 1500 and the fact that it is signed by the illustrator. That’s good news for those of us that love fine press books but don’t always have the budget to satisfy that love. My book’s slipcase is a little worn but still very serviceable. The blue linen used to cover the book’s boards and the slipcase has faded a bit but the interior of the book is still pristine. The paper was made specifically for this edition by Worthy Paper Company to approximate a hand-made paper and has held up well over the years. The feel of the page is wonderful. Contrary to the more typical small books of poetry, this is a very large book at 10.5 x 15 inches. Each sonnet is placed on a generous page with a beautiful illuminated capital by Angelo. The text is taken from the last edition published in Browning’s lifetime and contains her final revisions. Angelo’s illuminated capitals are simple but extremely elegant with the letter itself in gold and the illustration in blue and red.

A nice feature of the Limited Editions Club’s books is the Monthly Letter that accompanied the book when sent to a subscriber. These letters are a wealth of information on the details behind the material used in the books , it’s genesis, and other anecdotal information. Similar information is often included in the prospectus issued by many presses but rarely do I see the wealth of information contained in these LEC Monthly Letters. I’d love to see more presses do this as it really adds to my enjoyment of an edition to know these details.

In Sonnet XIII, Browning asks:

And wilt thou have me fashion into speech

The love I bear thee, finding words enough,

And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough,

Between our faces, to cast light on each?

I think she has answered her own question with these sonnets, and it would be tough to find a better answer. All of these are gems. My favorites (from this read through) are Sonnet XIV:

Illuminated letter and first lines of Sonnet XIV

If thou must love me, let I be for nought

Except for love’s sake only…,

and Sonnet XXXVIII:

First time he kissed me, …

And, of course, that most famous Sonnet XLIII:

Sonnet XLIII

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

Illuminated letter and first lines of Sonnet XXVIII

The Colophon

The book in its slipcase. (Note slight fading to slipcase typical in most copies)

Availability: This book was published back in 1948 in an edition of 1500. As I write this there are several copies available on-line (try ILAB or Abebooks) in various conditions and it can also be found occasionally in rare and antiquarian bookshops where you can get your hands on it and assess its condition for yourself.

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2 Responses to Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Limited Editions Club

  1. Robert Bailey says:

    I’m in total agreement that this is one of the most exquisite of all the LEC books. It was a somewhat late addition to my own collection as I had a nice little (duodecimo) leather edition from the 1900 with marbled page edges and endpapers, and the size of the LEC version (one of the largest ever issued by the LEC) put me off–until I acquired the Quarto-Millenary and saw a single page reproduction of one of the sonnets. I sold my duodecimo and immediately bought the LEC! As J. implies, no pictures can do justice to the sumptuous, yet chaste, beauty of this book.

    One other interesting fact about this book is that the designer was George Macy himself. I’ve always felt Macy was often just considered an entrepreneur and has received insufficient recognition of his design skills. The LEC [Ulysses] and [Lysistrata] were his designs also, and justly famous, but I feel that books like this one, which is somewhat neglected except among LEC aficionados, can rightly take their place beside the finest achievements of W. A. Dwiggins, T. M. Clelland and Francis Meynell.

  2. Tom Barrett says:

    It’s gorgeous!

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