life is too short and love is too long

Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese are, at first glance, intensely romantic sonnets about love written to Robert Browning. However, a closer look at some of these sonnets reveals that they explore more than just the notion of romantic love. The liken love with death, explore the dangers of falling in love, and reveal the power imbalances that come with a love affair such as this one. 

These themes reminded me very strongly of a book series I love. It’s The Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir. It’s a sci-fi series that deals with necromancy, and therefore themes of love, death, time, and morality. In their universe, necromancers are assigned cavaliers, trained warriors who serve and protect their necromancer. The bond is not inherently romantic, but it sometimes can be. Necromancers strive to become lyctors, which are extremely powerful and immortal necromancers. The only problem with this is that to achieve lyctorhood, the cavalier’s soul is absorbed by their necromancer, and their body dies. The necromancer’s eyes change to show that they have done this process. 

There are variations on this throughout the series, and there’s lots of body/soul swapping happening. At one point, two of the characters combine their souls into one body perfectly, creating an entirely new person from their relationship. These ideas reminded me of Sonnet IV (6): “leaves thy heart in mine/With pulses that beat double./What I do/And what I dream include thee, as the wine/Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue/God for myself, He hears that name of thine,/And sees within my eyes the tears of two” (EBB lines 9-14). In this love, there is no more individuality left for the speaker, she is absorbed completely, or otherwise bonded completely to her love forever. Necromancers and cavaliers have a saying to describe them, which is “one flesh, one end” (Muir). When necromancers and cavaliers discover that the way they achieve lyctorhood is cruel, it raises problems of morality. No one is completely sure how the process works, or if there is a way to do it and preserve the bodies and souls of both people – “perfect” lyctorhood. The two characters who combined themselves into a new person both technically are gone – their souls were essentially rearranged, so their persons are gone but not dead. They sacrificed themselves for each other, refusing to let one live on. The first sonnet echoed this sentiment: “Not Death, but Love” (EBB line 14) allowed the necromancer and the cavalier to create a new soul. 

Some pairs refuse to become lyctors, choosing love and eventual death over immortality and power. In sonnet 22, EBB asks her beloved “what bitter wrong/Can the earth do to us, that we should not long/Be here contented?” and tells him that they should “stay rather on earth” (EBB lines 4-10). It is a plea to stay and love normally instead of turning to heaven, implying that their love would be better even than the perfect love that the angels would provide. This is a sentiment heavily echoed in the series, the choice between the power of a love between people on earth and the pull of an immortal and perfect, but bonded love of a lyctor. Can love and freedom coexist, or does one really love thee better after death?

One thought on “life is too short and love is too long”

  1. Although I have never heard of this book series, this is a fascinating combination of literary material. Despite this lack of knowledge, I would like to comment on the similarities you drew based on love and immortality. I feel this to be a strong and valid connection, especially given how Browning imagines herself as a “double person” in many respects; therefore, your link between the lyctors and their consumption of each other to become powerful resonates well with her concepts. I would like to mention that I would like to have more connection between the two, for instance, does this message of duality stay the same despite being many years apart? Is duality in love and power a common fear and/or desire we must face? I think these might open the discussion between these two pieces of literature more than just comparing the similarities of concepts

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