In Sonnets From the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning sings: “Say over again, and yet once over again,/ …Cry ‘Speak once more – thou lovest!…/ …toll the silver iterance!”
For Browning, love is more than a thought or emotion, it is a vocal declaration. She insists that unless one can express their love via language, it is an unrecognizable “mystic Shape.” One must vocalize love to know love and feel its intimacy.
Thus, Browning stresses the necessity of knowing love through words, because words lead to a concrete knowledge, which prevents abstraction and abeyance. “But I look on thee – on thee – / Beholding, besides love, the end of love,/ Hearing oblivion beyond memory.” A mere thought or vision leads one to oblivion.
“I think of thee! – my thoughts do twine and bud/ About thee, as wild vines, about a tree/…I will not have my thoughts instead of thee/Who are dearer, better! Rather instantly/ Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should/Rustle thy bough and set they trunk all bare…” Mere thoughts can tangle our affections and conceal the object of our love.
Vocal declaration of love is often natural, except when it matters most. Eating a delicious meal, we sing its praises. After reading an enjoyable book, we close its cover to go tell others about it. But sometimes we forget to tell those closest to us that we love them. And even more, when it comes to a love that Augustine declares in his Confessions—“Late have I loved thee, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved thee!”—we are not in the habit of rapturously declaring our love for the Divine. Just as Protestants have lost a tradition of confession—vocally numerating our sins—we have not cultivated a practice of impulsive vocalization of the flip side of confession: praise. Rather, we love God in our hearts, but he still feels distant and abstract. And until we numerate all the ways we love him, I suspect he might never feel intimately close.