Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese:  Overview & Commentaries on Sonnets

Image: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Overview of Sonnets from the Portuguese

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s classic work, Sonnets from the Portuguese, has remained the poet’s most anthologized work, studied by students in secondary schools, colleges, and universities, as well as by the general lover of poetry.

Image: Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Two Poets in Love

While courting Elizabeth Barrett, Robert Browning lovingly referred to her by a nickname he had given her: “my little Portuguese.”  He chose that appellation for her because of her dark complexion.  That Elizabeth Barrett would then title her sequence of sonnets Sonnets from the Portuguese remains a natural, consequential event.

Through the decades, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese has remained a widely anthologized and studied sequence. The poet demonstrates her mastery of the Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet form throughout the 44-sonnet sequence.  

The theme, maintained throughout the sonnet sequence, spotlights the developing romantic relationship between Elizabeth Barrett and fellow poet, Robert Browning, the man who will become her husband. 

As their relationship begins and then grows and flowers, Elizabeth continues to entertain deep doubts about her ability to retain the affection of such an accomplished, world-renowned individual as Robert Browning; thus, she demonstrates much skepticism that the relationship will endure. She examines her insecurities, often magnifying them, before calming her heart to final acceptance.

Elizabeth’s experience with love relationships, no doubt, accounts for her initial hesitancy in accepting a relationship with Robert Browning:

Much of E.B.B.’s hesitation came from knowing that love can bring injury as well as boon. She had suffered such injury. With great pain did she finally recognise that her father’s strangely heartless affection would have buried her sickroom, for how else could she interpret his squelching of her plan to travel south for health in 1846, when doctors practically ordered the journey to Italy as a last hope? E.B.B. had had previous experience of one-sided affection, as we see in her diary of 1831-3, which concerns her relationship with the Greek scholar H.S. Boyd. For a year her entries calculate the bitter difference between his regard and her own, and she wonders if she can ever hope for reciprocation. In fact she finds her womanly capacity for feeling a liability and wishes she could feel less — “I am not of a cold nature, & cannot bear to be treated coldly. When cold water is thrown upon a hot iron, the iron hisses. I wish that water wd. make that iron as cold as self.”

Elizabeth Barrett’s ill health is often noted in biographies of the poet.  And while few have hazarded a guess as to the cause or even the name of her disease, Anne Buchanan, research assistant in anthropology, has offered a suggestion for the illness from which Elizabeth Barrett suffered.  Buchanan’s daughter suffers from hypokalemic periodic paralysis (HKPP). 

 This disease is a muscle disorder which “causes blood levels of potassium to fall because potassium becomes trapped in muscle cells.”  Buchanan and her daughter, Ellen Buchanan Weiss, noted that the descriptions of Barrett Browning’s illness closely matched those of the daughter.  The Buchanans noted that a cold, damp climate can intensity the pain brought on by HKPP.

During Barrett Browning’s lifetime, the cold, damp weather of London had exacerbated Elizabeth’s health issues, and whatever the name of her misery, it was a Godsend to her that she married Robert Browning, who relocated the couple to the warmer, more amenable climate of Italy.  

Because of Browning, Elizabeth not only found a soulmate who would love her, but also one who protected her and helped her live her remaining years more comfortably and productively.

The Petrarchan (Italian) Sonnet Form

Named for the 14 century Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch, the Petrarchan sonnet, also known as  the Italian sonnet plays out in an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. The octave features two quatrains (four lines each), and the sestet contains two tercets (three lines each).

Traditionally, the rime scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is ABBAABBA in the octave and CDCDCD in the sestet; however, poets often vary the sestet rime scheme from CDCDCD to CDECDE, as well as other configurations, but Barrett Browning never varied the rime scheme, retaining the traditional ABBAABBACDCDCD. 

This restriction that she imposed on herself for the composition of 44 sonnets demonstrates her mastery of that art.

Her choice of the Petrarchan sonnet also demonstrates her essential affinity with of the original poet’s theme, as she investigates the relationship between herself and her beloved and the relationship between human relationships and the Divine Creator:

[Petrarch’s] poems investigate the connection between love and chastity in the foreground of a political landscape, though many of them are also driven by emotion and sentimentality.  Critic Robert Stanley Martin writes that Petrarch “reimagined the conventions of love poetry in the most profound way: love for the idealized lady was the path towards learning how to properly love God . . .” 

Separating the sonnet’s quatrains and sestets provides the commentarian a clear focus to concentrate on each segment.  However, each sonnet in this sequence consists of one stanza only, complete with octave and sestet.

(Please note:  Dr. Samuel Johnson introduced the form “rhyme” into English in the 18th century, mistakenly thinking that the term was a Greek derivative of “rhythmos.” Thus, “rhyme” is an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form “rime,” please see “Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.”)

A Legacy of Love

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet sequence begins with an extraordinary yet imaginative open field for discovery.  The poet’s life, which had been one of much illness along with misunderstanding by her family, especially her father, had resulted in a tendency toward melancholy. 

As the poet progresses throughout the sonnet sequence, she demonstrates a change of mood—from one that held to the notion that death may be her only consort to one of joy that she was loved and valued by and individual such as Robert Browning, a man of the world, confident, and genuinely in love with Elizabeth.

While their relationship had to overcome its share of trials and tribulations, the ultimate love story that results remains one for the ages, and the world knows more about these two lover-poets than it would otherwise without their loving relationship:

In addition to being celebrated for their literary talents, Elizabeth and Robert are remembered as people who were deeply in love. As Sir Frederic Kenyon wrote, Elizabeth and Robert “gave the most beautiful example of [love] in their own lives.” The marriage of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning required courage and sacrifice, and they were willing to do whatever it took to build a beautiful life together.

Barrett Browning’s 44-sonnets sequence puts on display the journey of a poet who begins in doubt, explores the root causes of those doubts, and then blooms with the acceptance of the love that had been so freely and genuinely offered her.  The story of the relationship between these two poets remains one of most inspirational and most passionate love stories in the literary world.

Sources

Image: Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Commentaries on Sonnets

Sonnets from the Portuguese is the most famous work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  That work consists of 44 sonnets, all in the Petrarchan or Italian form.  The theme of the series focuses directly on the budding love relationship between Elizabeth and the man who would become her husband, Robert Browning.

Sonnet 1: “I thought once how Theocritus had sung”

The first sonnet in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese features a speaker who expresses the fruitlessness of dwelling on death and the melancholy such musing will create.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 1:  “I thought once how Theocritus had sung”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese stands as a remarkable testimony of the love and respect the poet harbored for her suitor and future husband, Robert Browning, who became one of the most famous poets in the Western world.  

As the relationship continues to flower, Elizabeth worries that it would not last.  Her insecurities are on display in this series of poems.

Sonnet 1:  “I thought once how Theocritus had sung”

I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in its antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was ’ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move 1
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,—
“Guess now who holds thee?”—“Death,” I said. But, there,
The silver answer rang,—“Not Death, but Love.”

Commentary on Sonnet 1: “I thought once how Theocritus had sung”

The first sonnet in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese features a speaker who expresses the fruitlessness of dwelling on death and the melancholy such musing will create.

First Quatrain:  The Bucolic Classic Poetry of Theocritus

I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:

The speaker begins her dramatizing of her musing by imparting the fact that she has studied closely the bucolic poetry of the ancient classical poet, Theocritus.  That classical Greek poet “had sung / Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years.” 

She has perceived the idea from the poem’s insightful knowledge that every year offers “a gift to mortals”; the elderly and the youthful alike are capable of receiving those marvelous and sacred blessings.

The speaker’s melancholy and loneliness have moved her to search out answers for questions that have plagued her, answers regarding the purpose of living.  The speaker rightly and thankfully is consulting the ancient thinkers because she knows they have offered wisdom and courage to each succeeding generation.

Second Quatrain:  Finding Her Own Life in Poetry

And, as I mused it in its antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung

After continuing to muse on the words of Theocritus, the speaker well understands the sentiment expressed in these words, that will bring her eyes to tears.  And through those sincere tears, she seems to see her “own life.”  

She knows that her own years have not been especially kind to her. Her own life has been filled with much sorrow.  The gifts provided by time are not always welcome ones to the recipient.  Such is life.  

Each person’s karma is responsible for the specific happenings that occur in one’s life.  One will always reap as one sows.  But one does not have to be happy with the results, as one strives to change one’s karma through improving one’s behavior and thoughts.

Barrett Browning’s ability to understand the original Greek text is critical in her ability to feel the profound emotional impact of those thoughts.  

False “translators” such a Robert Bly, who could not read the texts he supposedly translated in the original, would likely add an absurd element rendering true emotion impossible, but Barrett Browning did understand the languages in which she read, and thus she could render a speaker with genuine emotion.

First Tercet:  Life Beneath a Shadow

A shadow across me. Straightway I was ’ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move 1
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;

The speaker then asserts that her own life has been lived beneath a “shadow.”  This dark cloud has stretched “across [her],” and she, all of a sudden, becomes aware that she is crying.  

She senses that she is being dragged backward:  someone or something is pulling her by the hair into some “mystic Shape.”  Unfortunately, she is not able to identify that strange creature who seems to be tugging at her.

Second Tercet:  A Correcting Voice

And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,—
“Guess now who holds thee?”—“Death,” I said. But, there,
The silver answer rang,—“Not Death, but Love.”

As she attempts to right herself, the speaker then detects what seems to be a voice, a “voice of mastery,” and it suggests a question to her;  it says, “Guess now who holds thee?” 

The speaker then immediately yet fatalistically responds, “Death.” However, to her relieved surprise, the voice corrects her deadly response with, “Not Death, but Love.”

An Enduring Love Story

The Brownings’ love story has remained a subject for exploration as well as admiration in the poetry world.  In her Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth creates and portrays a speaker who dramatizes the poet’s many melancholy and doubt-filled moments.  

While she is at first elated that someone as accomplished as Robert Browning would notice her and want to spend time with her, she seems to grow doubtful that the relationship could bloom into true love.

Readers who explore the sonnets will be pleasantly charmed by her growth from doubt to deep awareness that the couple’s love is real and supported by the Divine Belovèd.  The Brownings’ love story is a most uplifting love story, uniquely told in sonnets.

Sonnet 2:  “But only three in all God’s universe”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s second sonnet from Sonnets from the Portuguese reports that her relationship with her life-mate is granted by God, and thus, it cannot be broken or disavowed.  

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 2

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 2 focuses on her growing relationship with her beloved life partner, Robert Browning. Her speaker insists that the relationship is their destiny; it is karmically determined, and therefore, nothing in this world could have kept them apart once God had issued the decree for them to come together.

Sonnet 2:  “But only three in all God’s universe”

But only three in all God’s universe
Have heard this word thou hast said,—Himself, beside
Thee speaking, and me listening! and replied
One of us … that was God, … and laid the curse
So darkly on my eyelids, as to amerce
My sight from seeing thee,—that if I had died,
The deathweights, placed there, would have signified
Less absolute exclusion. “Nay” is worse
From God than from all others, O my friend!
Men could not part us with their worldly jars,
Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend;
Our hands would touch for all the mountain-bars:
And, heaven being rolled between us at the end,
We should but vow the faster for the stars.

Commentary on Sonnet 2:  “But only three in all God’s universe”

In sonnet 2, the speaker reports that her relationship with her life-mate is granted by God, and thus, it cannot be broken or disavowed.  

First Quatrain:   A Private and Holy Trinity

But only three in all God’s universe
Have heard this word thou hast said,—Himself, beside
Thee speaking, and me listening! and replied
One of us … that was God, … and laid the curse

The speaker avers that in the couple’s relationship, there are only three beings who have been privy to “this word thou hast said.” When her partner first told her that he loved her, she senses that God was speaking His own love for her as well.

As she excitedly but tenderly took in the meaning of the declaration of love, she realized what her lot might have become without this happy turn of events. She responds rather hesitantly, even awkwardly recalling her physical illnesses that she labels “the curse.”

Second Quatrain:   The Curse of the Body

So darkly on my eyelids, as to amerce
My sight from seeing thee,—that if I had died,
The deathweights, placed there, would have signified
Less absolute exclusion. “Nay” is worse

The speaker’s reference to the “curse” is an exaggeration of the earthly physical body’s many issues with the pain of having to exist in a physical body.   Additionally, it might be helpful for readers to know that the poet did suffer much physical illness during her lifetime. 

Thus, she can rightly allow her speaker to focus on the inharmonious circumstances that have disrupted but also informed the dramatic issues infusing  her poetics.

This  particular “curse” that was put “[s]o darkly on [her] eyelids” might have hampered her ability to see her beloved.  Even if she had died, her separation from him would have been no worse then her inability to see him in this life.

First Tercet:  God’s No

From God than from all others, O my friend!
Men could not part us with their worldly jars,
Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend;

The speaker then truthfully responds,  “‘Nay’ is worse / / From God than from all others, O my friend!” If God’s answer to a mortal’s most ardent prayer is a resounding no, then that supplicant will suffer more than being turned down by a mere fellow mortal.  

The suffering is likely to continue until that deluded soul finally reaches emancipation, thereby understanding all.

But by good fortune, God brought this pair together, and thus, “Men could not part us with their worldly jars, / Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend.”   The speaker is echoing the marriage vow:  “what God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” 

Thus, the speaker is asserting that the bond that rendered her happiest on this earthly plane of being is the one with her beloved partner and future husband.

Second Tercet:  Ordained by God

Our hands would touch for all the mountain-bars:
And, heaven being rolled between us at the end,
We should but vow the faster for the stars.

The speaker then reveals that she has confidence that her union with her beloved is ordained by God.  With such assurance, she knows that even if “mountain-bars” tried to separate them, their “hands would touch.” 

So completely confident is she that can declare that even if after death, if heaven tried to disrupt in any way or intrude in their union, “We should but vow the faster for the stars.”

Sonnet 3:  “Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!”

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 3 muses on how unlikely it seems that a plain singer such as herself would begin a relationship with a person who has attracted royalty.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 3:  “Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!”

The speaker of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 3 from Sonnets from the Portuguese contemplates the differences between her belovèd and her humble self. 

She continues her study of unlikely love employing the use of the Petrarchan sonnet form for the sequence.  The speaker thus dramatizes her musings as they focus on her relationship with her belovèd partner.

Sonnet 3:  “Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!”

Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!
Unlike our uses and our destinies.
Our ministering two angels look surprise
On one another, as they strike athwart
Their wings in passing. Thou, bethink thee, art
A guest for queens to social pageantries,
With gages from a hundred brighter eyes
Than tears even can make mine, to play thy part
Of chief musician. What hast thou to do
With looking from the lattice-lights at me,
A poor, tired, wandering singer, singing through
The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?
The chrism is on thine head,—on mine, the dew,—
And Death must dig the level where these agree.

Commentary on Sonnet 3:  “Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!”

The speaker in sonnet 3 is musing on how unlikely it seems that a plain singer such as herself would begin a relationship with a person who has attracted the attention and respect of royalty.

First Quatrain:  Contemplating Differences

Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!
Unlike our uses and our destinies.
Our ministering two angels look surprise
On one another, as they strike athwart

The speaker begins with an excited remark.  The humble speaker and her newly formed romantic partner perform very different roles in life; thus they would naturally be on the road to very different “destinies,” one would assume.  

The speaker then paints a fantastic image wherein a couple of angels look with surprise, “On one another, as they strike athwart / / Their wings in passing.” 

This unusual pair of lovers possesses very different guardian angels, and those angels find themselves taken aback that this pair with such differing stations in life should come together and apparently begin to flourish in doing do.  The angels’ wings begin fluttering, as they questioningly peer upon the unlikely couple.

Second Quatrain:  A Guest of Royalty

Their wings in passing. Thou, bethink thee, art
A guest for queens to social pageantries,
With gages from a hundred brighter eyes
Than tears even can make mine, to play thy part

The speaker reports that her new belovèd has often been “a guest for queens to social pageantries.”   The speaker is only a shy and retiring individual; she thus offers the contrast between her own social station and skills to that of one who has shined so brightly as to attract the acceptance into the company of royalty.

The speaker assumes that the folks he surely meets at the spectacular affairs of royalty no doubt look at him with “a hundred brighter eyes” than her own.  Her tears even cannot be enough to render her eyes as bright as what he must experience at such high level social affairs.

First Tercet:  Her Lowly Self

Of chief musician. What hast thou to do
With looking from the lattice-lights at me,
A poor, tired, wandering singer, singing through

The speaker then contends that unlike her lowly self, her new found love has played the role of “chief musician” at those gatherings of royalty.  She, therefore, must question the notion that he would even bother to give her a second thought, after encountering the glamor and glitz of upper class events. 

The speaker then puts the question to her romantic partner in order to become informed as to why one such as he would be “looking from the lattice-lights” at one such as herself. 

She wants to know why one who can so easily attract and associate with royalty can at the same time seem to be like a commoner, as he “lean[s] up a cypress tree,” while peering up at her through her shaded-window.

Second Tercet:  A Precious Oil

The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?
The chrism is on thine head,—on mine, the dew,—
And Death must dig the level where these agree.

Finally, the speaker declaims that her loved one sustains  “chrism” on his head, but she possesses only “dew.” The precious oil coming together with only plain dew boggles her mind; thus, she evokes the image, “Death must dig the level where these agree.”   

On the earthly plain and in a definitely class based society, the speaker cannot conciliate the differences between herself and her beloved.  She therefore suggests that she will just allow “Death” to establish the meaning and purpose of this seemingly bizarre, but happy, occurrence.

Sonnet 4:  “Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 4, from Sonnets from the Portuguese, continues with the speaker musing on her new relationship with her suitor, who seems too good to be true. 

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 4:  “Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor”

The speaker seems to be searching for a reason to believe that such a match with a suitor  as illustrious as hers is even possible.  She continues to brood in a melancholy line of thought, even as she seems to be becoming enthralled with the notion of having a true love in her life.

Sonnet 4:  “Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor”

Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor,
Most gracious singer of high poems! where
The dancers will break footing, from the care
Of watching up thy pregnant lips for more.
And dost thou lift this house’s latch too poor
For hand of thine? and canst thou think and bear
To let thy music drop here unaware
In folds of golden fulness at my door?
Look up and see the casement broken in,
The bats and owlets builders in the roof!
My cricket chirps against thy mandolin.
Hush, call no echo up in further proof
Of desolation! there’s a voice within
That weeps … as thou must sing … alone, aloof.

Commentary on Sonnet 4:  “Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor”

Sonnet 4 marches on with the speaker’s musing on her new relationship with her suitor, who seems too good to be true. 

First Quatrain: “Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor”

Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor,
Most gracious singer of high poems! where
The dancers will break footing, from the care
Of watching up thy pregnant lips for more.

In Sonnet 4 from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker addresses directly her suitor, as she continues her metaphorical comparison between the two lovers in a similar vain as she did with Sonnet 3.

Once again, she takes note of her suitor’s invitations to perform for royalty, “Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor.” He has been a “[m]ost gracious singer of high poems,” and the royal guests curiously stop dancing to listen to him recite his poetry.  

The speaker visualizes the dashing Robert Browning at court, mesmerizing the king, queen, and royal guest with the poetic prowess.

Second Quatrain: “And dost thou lift this house’s latch too poor”

And dost thou lift this house’s latch too poor
For hand of thine? and canst thou think and bear
To let thy music drop here unaware
In folds of golden fulness at my door?

In the second quatrain, the speaker puts forth a rhetorical question in two-parts: 1) Being one of such high breeding and accomplishment, are you sure that you want to visit one who is lower class than you? 2) Are you sure that you do not mind reciting your substantial and rich poetry in such a low class place with one who is not of your high station?

First Tercet “Look up and see the casement broken in”

Look up and see the casement broken in,
The bats and owlets builders in the roof!
My cricket chirps against thy mandolin.

The speaker then insists that her royalty-worthy suitor to take a good look at where she lives. The windows of her house are in disrepair, and she cannot afford to have “the bats and owlets” removed from the nests that they have built in the roof of her house.

The final line of the first sestet offers a marvelous comparison that metaphorically states the difference between the suitor and speaker: “My cricket chirps against thy mandolin.” 

On the literal level, she is only a plain woman living in a pastoral setting with simple possessions, while he is the opposite, cosmopolitan and richly endowed, famous enough to be summoned by royalty, possessing the expensive musical instrument with which he can embellish his already distinguished art.

The lowly speaker’s “crickets” also metaphorically represent her own poems, which she likens to herself, poor creatures compared to the “high poems” and royal music of her illustrious suitor. 

The suitor’s “mandolin,” therefore, literally exemplifies wealth and leisure because it accompanies his poetry performance, and it figuratively serves as a counterpart to the lowly crickets of the speaker.

Second Tercet: “Hush, call no echo up in further proof”

Hush, call no echo up in further proof
Of desolation! there’s a voice within
That weeps … as thou must sing … alone, aloof.

The speaker again makes a gentle demand of her suitor, begging him, please do not be concerned or troubled for my rumblings about poverty and my lowly station. 

The speaker is asserting her belief that it is simply her natural mode of expression; her “voice within” is one that is given to melancholy, even as his voice is given to singing cheerfully.

The speaker implies that because she has lived “alone, aloof,” it is only natural that her voice would reveal her loneliness and thus contrast herself somewhat negatively with one as illustrious as her suitor.

Sonnet 5:  “I lift my heavy heart up solemnly”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 5 from Sonnets from the Portuguese focuses on the speaker’s lack of confidence that her budding relationship will continue to grow.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 5:  “I lift my heavy heart up solemnly”

The speaker’s lack of confidence in her own value as a person and poet makes her doubt that  budding relationship will continue to blossom.  Her little dramas continue to exude her lack of self esteem, while she also makes it known the she holds her beloved in the highest regard.  Likely she feels unworthy of such an accomplished individual.

Sonnet 5:  “I lift my heavy heart up solemnly”

I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see
What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,
And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn
Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn
Could tread them out to darkness utterly,
It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up,… those laurels on thine head,
O My beloved, will not shield thee so,
That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
The hair beneath. Stand further off then! Go.

Commentary on Sonnet 5:  “I lift my heavy heart up solemnly”

The speaker in sonnet 5 focuses on her lack of confidence that her budding relationship will continue to grow.

First Quatrain:  Dramatic Ashes

I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see

In the first quatrain of Sonnet 5 from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker likens her heart to the urn held by Electra, who thought she was holding the ashes of her dead brother Orestes in Sophocles’ tragic Greek play, Electra

The speaker is raising the “sepulchral urn” of her heart to her beloved, and then suddenly, she spills the ashes at his feet. She commands him to look at those ashes.

The speaker has established in her opening sonnets that not only is she but a humble poet shielded from the eyes of society, but she is also one who has suffered greatly from physical maladies as well as mental anguish. She has suffered thinking that she may never have the opportunity to love and be loved.

Second Quatrain:  Dropping Grief

What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,
And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn
Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn
Could tread them out to darkness utterly

The speaker continues the metaphor of her heart as filled with ashes by commanding her beloved to look and see, “What a great heap of grief lay hid in me.” She metaphorically compares the ashes held within the urn of her heart to her grief.

Now she has dropped those ashes of grief at the feet of her beloved. But she notices that there seem to be some live coals in the heap of ashes; her grief is still burning “through the ashen greyness.” She speculates that if her beloved could stomp out the remaining burning coals of her grief, that might be all well and good.

First Tercet:  Burning Coals of Grief

It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up,… those laurels on thine head,

If, however, he does not tread on those burning coals of grief and merely remains still beside her, the wind will stir up those ashes, and they may land on the head of the beloved, a head that is garlanded with laurels.

It will be remembered that the speaker has, in the two preceding sonnets, made it clear that her beloved has prestige and the attention of royalty. Thus, he is as one who is declared a winner with the reward of laurels.

Second Tercet:  In the Throes of Sorrow

O My beloved, will not shield thee so,
That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
The hair beneath. Stand further off then! Go.

The speaker avers that even those laurels will not be able to protect his hair from being singed, once the wind has blown those live coals upon his head. She therefore bids him, “Stand farther off then! go.”

In the throes of incredible sorrow, the speaker is awakening slowly to the possibility that she can be loved by someone whom she deems her superior in every way. Her head is bare, not garlanded with laurels as is his.

She must give him leave to forsake her because she believes that he will do so after he fully comprehends who she really is. Although she, of course, hopes he will protest and remain beside her, she does not want to deceive herself, falsely believing that he will, in fact, remain with her.

Sonnet 6:  “Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 6 is a clever seduction sonnet; as the speaker seems to be giving the suitor every reason to leave her, she is also giving him very good reasons to remain.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 6:  “Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand”

Barrett Browning’s sonnet 6 from Sonnets from the Portuguese may be thought of as the seeming reversal of a seduction theme.  At first the speaker seems to be dismissing her lover.  But as she continues, she shows just how close they already are.

The speaker’s revelation that he will always be with her, even though she has sent him away from the relationship, is bolstered by many instances of intensity that is surely meant to keep the love attracted instead of repelling him.

Sonnet 6:  “Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand”

Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Hence forward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I forbore—
Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land
Doom takes to part us, 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.

Commentary on Sonnet 6:  “Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand”

This sonnet is a clever seduction sonnet; as the speaker seems to be giving the suitor every reason to leave her, she is also giving him very good reasons to remain.

First Quatrain: “Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand”

Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Hence forward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 6 from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker is commanding her beloved to leave her. As she has protested in earlier sonnets, she does not believe she is equal to his stature, and such a match could not withstand the scrutiny of their class society. 

But the clever speaker also hastens to add that his spirit will always remain with her, and she will henceforth be “[n]evermore / Alone upon the threshold of my door / Of individual life.”

That the speaker once met and touched one so esteemed will continue to play as a presence in her mind and heart. She is grateful for the opportunity just to have briefly known him, but she cannot presume that they could have a permanent relationship.

Second Quatrain: “The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand”

The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I forbore—
Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land

The speaker continues the thought that her beloved’s presence will remain with her as she commands her own soul’s activities. Even as she may “lift [her] hand” and view it in the sunlight, she will be reminded that a wonderful man once held it and touched “the palm.”

The speaker has married herself so securely to her beloved’s essence that she avows that she cannot henceforth be without him. As she attempts to convince herself that such a life will suffice, she also attempts to convince her beloved that they are already inseparable.

First Tercet: “Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine”

Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine

No matter how far apart the two may travel, no matter how many miles the landscape “doom[s]” them to separation, their two hearts will forever beat together, as “pulses that beat double.” Everything she does in future will include him, and in her every dream, he will appear.

Second Tercet: “Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue”

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.

They will be a union as close as grapes and wine: “as the wine / / Must taste of its own grapes.” And when she supplicates to God, she will always include the name of her beloved. She will never be able to pray only for herself but will always pray for him as well.

And when the speaker sheds tears before God, she will be shedding “the tears of two.” Her life will be so bound together with her beloved that there is no need for him to remain with her physically, and she has given reasons that he should depart and not feel any pangs of sorrow for her. In fact, he will not be leaving her if they are so closely untied already.

While the speaker seems to be giving the suitor every opportunity to leave her by exaggerating their union, her pleadings also reveal that she is giving him every reason to remain with her. 

If they are already as close and wine and grapes, and she adores him so greatly as to continue to remember that he touched her palm, such strong love and adoration would be difficult to turn down, despite the class differences that superficially separate them.

Sonnet 7: “The face of all the world is changed, I think

Sonnet 7 offers a tribute to the speaker’s lover, who has wrought deep and lasting important changes in the speaker’s life.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 7: “The face of all the world is changed, I think

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet #7 from Sonnets from the Portuguese expresses the speaker’s astonishment and delight at her own transformation, as she extends her gratitude to her lover for her life transformation.

Sonnet 7: “The face of all the world is changed, I think

The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole
God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,
And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
The names of country, heaven, are changed away
For where thou art or shalt be, there or here;
And this … this lute and song … loved yesterday,
(The singing angels know) are only dear
Because thy name moves right in what they say.

Commentary on Sonnet 7: “The face of all the world is changed, I think

Sonnet 7 offers a tribute to the speaker’s lover, who has wrought deep and lasting important changes in the speaker’s life.

First Quatrain:  Changing Environment

The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink

The emotional speaker notes that all things in her environs have changed their appearance because of her new outlook after having become aware of her new love. Lovers traditionally begin to see the world through rose-colored glasses upon falling in love. 

Every ordinary object takes on a rosy glow that flows from the happiness in the heart of the romantic lover.

This deep-thinking speaker asserts that her lover has placed himself between her and the terrible “death” she has sensed to be engulfing her. His “footsteps” were so gentle that they seemed to be the soft sounds of only the soul.

Second Quatrain:   Doomed Without Love

Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole
God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,

The speaker was convinced that without such a love to save her she was doomed to “obvious death.” She finds herself suddenly transported to a new world, a new “life in a new rhythm” with the arrival of her beloved. She was so mired in sadness that it seemed that she was being “baptized” in that mindset, as one drowning in one’s own fears and tears.

The melancholy speaker finds herself reluctant to allow herself complete immersion in her newfound happiness, but still she has to admit that her new status is overcoming her prior terror.

First Tercet:   A Universal Change

And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
The names of country, heaven, are changed away
For where thou art or shalt be, there or here;

The speaker must extol the “sweetness” that she receives from her new lover. Because he is beside her, she has changed in a universal way—”names of country, heaven, are changed away.” Nothing is the same; all of her old cheerless, dreary life is transformed utterly.

The more confident speaker is now willing to entertain the notion that he will remain by her side to delight her life permanently, throughout time and space.

Second Tercet:  The Singing of Angels

And this … this lute and song … loved yesterday,
(The singing angels know) are only dear
Because thy name moves right in what they say.

The glad speaker hears the angels sing in her lover’s voice, and as she loved his poems and music before, she has become even more enamored with them after a brief period of time has passed. 

His very name “moves right in what they say.” As the angels sing and heavenly music delight her, she realizes that her beloved has brought about her pleasant state of mind.

The thankful speaker wants to give him all the tribute he deserves. She feels that she cannot exaggerate his magnitude, and everything she knows and feels now fills her heart and mind with new life—a life that she had become convinced she could never experience. With such a transformation, she feels that she cannot say enough to express the value of such an act.

Sonnet 8:  “What can I give thee back, O liberal”

The speaker continues to deny her good fortune as she reveals her gratitude for the attention of her illustrious suitor; she begins to accept her lot but reluctantly.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 8:  “What can I give thee back, O liberal”

Sonnet 8 from Sonnets from the Portuguese finds the speaker continuing to doubt and deny her great luck in attracting such an accomplished and generous suitor. However, she is slowly beginning to accept the possibility that this amazing man could have affection for her.

Sonnet 8:  “What can I give thee back, O liberal”

What can I give thee back, O liberal
And princely giver, who hast brought the gold
And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold,
And laid them on the outside of the wall
For such as I to take or leave withal,
In unexpected largesse? am I cold,
Ungrateful, that for these most manifold
High gifts, I render nothing back at all?
Not so; not cold,—but very poor instead.
Ask God who knows. For frequent tears have run
The colors from my life, and left so dead
And pale a stuff, it were not fitly done
To give the same as pillow to thy head.
Go farther! let it serve to trample on.

Commentary on Sonnet 8:  “What can I give thee back, O liberal”

The speaker continues to deny her good fortune as she reveals her gratitude for the attention of her illustrious suitor; she begins to accept her lot but reluctantly.

First Quatrain:  Baffled by Attention

What can I give thee back, O liberal
And princely giver, who hast brought the gold
And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold,
And laid them on the outside of the wall

The speaker once again finds herself baffled by the attention she receives from one who is so much above her station in life. He has given her so much, being a “liberal / And princely giver.”  The term “liberal” here means openly generous.

Her suitor has brought his valuable poetry to her along with his own upper-class qualities and manners. She metaphorically assigns all of those gifts to the status of “gold and purple,” the colors of royalty, and locates them “outside the wall.”

The suitor romances her by serenading her under her window, and she is astonished by the good fortune she is experiencing. She cannot comprehend how one so delicate and lowly positioned as herself can merit the attention she continues to garner from this handsome, accomplished poet.

Second Quatrain:  Rejecting or Accepting

For such as I to take or leave withal,
In unexpected largesse? am I cold,
Ungrateful, that for these most manifold
High gifts, I render nothing back at all? 

The handsome suitor provides the speaker with the choice of taking his affections and attentions or rejecting them, and she is very grateful for all she receives even as she regrets that she has nothing to offer in return: “I render nothing back at all.” 

She frames her lack into a question that answers itself, implying that even though she may seem “ungrateful,” nothing could be further from the truth.

The rhetorical intensity achieved through dramatizing her feelings in a rhetorical question enhances not only the sonnet’s artistry but also adds dimension to those same feelings. 

The rhetorical question device magnifies the emotion. Instead of employing overused expressions along the lines of “definitely” or “very,” the speaker uses the rhetorical question  to fuse the poetic tools into a dramatic expression that fairly explodes with emotion.

First Tercet:  No Lack of Passion

Not so; not cold,—but very poor instead.
Ask God who knows. For frequent tears have run
The colors from my life, and left so dead

The speaker, however, does not leave the question open to possible misinterpretation; she then quite starkly answers, “No so; not cold.” She does not lack passion about the gifts her suitor bestows upon her; she is merely “very poor instead.”

She insists that it is “God who knows” the extent of her poverty as well as the depth of her gratitude. She then admits that through much shedding of tears, she has caused the details of her life to fade as clothing rinsed many times in water would become “pale a stuff.”

Second Tercet:  Low Self Esteem

And pale a stuff, it were not fitly done
To give the same as pillow to thy head.
Go farther! let it serve to trample on.

The speaker’s lack of a colorful life, her lowly station, her simplicity of expression have all combined to make her denigrate herself before the higher class suitor with whom she feels compelled to contrast herself.

She is still not able to reconcile her lack to his plenty, and again she wants to urge him to go from her because she feels her lack is worth so little that it might “serve to trample on.” Her hopes and dreams she will keep hidden until they can override the reality of her personal lack of experience and life station.

Sonnet 9:  “Can it be right to give what I can give?”

Continuing her lamentations over the gap in societal station between her suitor and herself, the speaker wonders if she has anything to offer the suitor.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 9:  “Can it be right to give what I can give?”

Sonnet 9, from Sonnets from the Portuguese, seems to offer the speaker’s strongest rebuttal against the pairing of herself and her beloved.  She seems most adamant that he leave her; yet in her inflexible demeanor screams the opposite of what she seems to be urging upon her lover.

Sonnet 9:  “Can it be right to give what I can give?”

Can it be right to give what I can give?
To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears
As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years
Re-sighing on my lips renunciative
Through those infrequent smiles which fail to live
For all thy adjurations? O my fears,
That this can scarce be right! We are not peers,
So to be lovers; and I own, and grieve,
That givers of such gifts as mine are, must
Be counted with the ungenerous. Out, alas!
I will not soil thy purple with my dust,
Nor breathe my poison on thy Venice-glass,
Nor give thee any love—which were unjust.
Beloved, I only love thee! let it pass.

Commentary on Sonnet 9:  “Can it be right to give what I can give?”

As she continues to bemoan the gap between the social stations of her suitor and herself, the speaker wonders if she has anything to offer her belovèd.

First Quatrain:  Only Sorrow to Offer

Can it be right to give what I can give?
To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears
As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years
Re-sighing on my lips renunciative

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ninth sonnet of the sequence, the speaker begins with a question, “Can it be right to give what I can give?” She then explains what she “can give”; through a bit of exaggeration, she contends that all she has to offer is her sorrow.

If her suitor continues with her, he will have to “sit beneath the fall of tears.” And he will have to listen to her sighs again and again. Her “lips” are like a renunciant, who has given up all desire for worldly gain and material achievement.

Second Quatrain:  Seldom Smiling Lips

Through those infrequent smiles which fail to live
For all thy adjurations? O my fears,
That this can scarce be right! We are not peers,
So to be lovers; and I own, and grieve,

The speaker’s lips have seldom smiled, and they even now seem incapable of acquiring the smiling habit, despite the attentions she is now receiving from her suitor. She is afraid that such an unbalanced situation is unfair to her lover; thus she laments, “this can scare be right!” 

Continuing she exclaims, “We are not peers,” and this situation dominates her rhetoric and her concerns.

Because they are “not peers,” she cannot fathom how they can be lovers, yet it seems that such is the nature of their maturing relationship. She feels that she must confess that the gap between them continues to taunt her and to cause her to “grieve.”

First Tercet:  Copious Tears

The speaker spells out her concern that by giving him such gifts as copious tears and unsmiling lips she has to be “counted with the ungenerous.” She wishes it were otherwise; she would like to give gifts as rich as the ones she receives.

But because she is incapable of returning equal treasure, she again insists that her lover leave her; she cries, “Out, alas!” Again, elevating her lover to the status of royalty, she insists, “I will not soil they purple with my dust.”

Second Tercet:  Self-Argument

That givers of such gifts as mine are, must
Be counted with the ungenerous. Out, alas!
I will not soil thy purple with my dust,

Neither will she “breathe [her] poison on [his] Venice-glass.” She will not allow her lowly station to sully his higher class. But then she goes much too far, saying, “[n]or give thee any love.” She immediately reverses herself, averring that she was wrong in making such a statement.

Thus she asserts, “Belovèd, I only love thee! let it pass.” She finally admits without reservation that she loves him and asks him to forget the protestations she has made. She asks him to “let it pass,” or forget that she has made such suggestions that he should leave her; she wants nothing more than that he stay.

Sonnet 10:  “Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed”

The speaker of sonnet 10 is beginning to reason that despite her flaws, the transformative power of love can change her negative, dismissive attitude.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 10:  “Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “ Sonnet 10 ” from Sonnets from the Portuguese finds the speaker’s attitude evolving. She reasons that if God can love his lowliest creatures, surely a man can love a flawed woman, and in so doing can overcome the flaws through the power of love.

Sonnet 10:  “Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed”

Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed
And worthy of acceptation. Fire is bright,
Let temple burn, or flax; an equal light
Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed:
And love is fire. And when I say at need
I love thee … mark! … I love thee—in thy sight
I stand transfigured, glorified aright,
With conscience of the new rays that proceed
Out of my face toward thine. There’s nothing low
In love, when love the lowest: meanest creatures
Who love God, God accepts while loving so.
And what I feel, across the inferior features
Of what I am, doth flash itself, and show
How that great work of Love enhances Nature’s.

Commentary on Sonnet 10:  “Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed”

The speaker of sonnet 10 is beginning to reason that despite her flaws, the transformative power of love can change her negative, dismissive attitude.

First Quatrain:  The Value of Love

Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed
And worthy of acceptation. Fire is bright,
Let temple burn, or flax; an equal light
Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed:

The speaker begins to focus on the value of love, finding that emotion to be “beautiful” and even “worthy of acceptation.” She likens love to fire and finds love to be “bright” as love is also a flame in the heart and mind.

She contends that the power of fire and the light it emits is the same regardless of the fuel that feeds it, whether “from cedar-plank or weed.” Thus she is beginning to believe that her suitor’s love can burn as bright if she is the motivation, although she considers herself the weed rather than the cedar-plank.

Second Quatrain:  Fire and Love

And love is fire. And when I say at need
I love thee … mark! … I love thee—in thy sight
I stand transfigured, glorified aright,
With conscience of the new rays that proceed

The speaker continues the metaphorical comparison of love to fire and boldly states, “And love is fire.” She audaciously proclaims her love for her suitor and contends that by saying she loves him, she transforms her lowly self and “stand[s] transfigured, glorified aright.”

The awareness of the vibrations of love that exude from her being causes her to be magnified and made better than she normally believes herself to be.

First Tercet:  God’s Love

Out of my face toward thine. There’s nothing low
In love, when love the lowest: meanest creatures
Who love God, God accepts while loving so.

The speaker avers, “There’s nothing low / In love.” God loves all of his creatures, even the lowliest. The speaker is evolving toward true acceptance of her suitor’s attention, but she has to convince her doubting mind that there exists good reason for her to change her outlook.

Obviously, the speaker has no intention of changing her beliefs in her own low station in life. She carries her past in the heart, and all of her tears and sorrows have permanently tainted her own view of herself. 

But she can turn toward acceptance and allow herself to be loved, and through that love she can, at least, bask in its joy as a chilled person would bask in sunshine.

Second Tercet:  The Transformative Powers of Love

And what I feel, across the inferior features
Of what I am, doth flash itself, and show
How that great work of Love enhances Nature’s.

The speaker will continue to think of herself as inferior, but because she can now believe that one as illustrious as her suitor can love her, she is comprehending the transformative powers of love. 

She insists on her inferiority, saying, “what I feel across the inferior features / Of what I am.” But she also insists that “the great work of Love” is such a powerful force that it can “enhance[ ] Nature’s.”

Sonnet 11: “And therefore if to love can be desert”

The speaker is still walking the path to self-acceptance, still looking for the courage to believe in her own good fortune at finding a love that she wants to deserve.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 11: “And therefore if to love can be desert”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 11” from Sonnets from the Portuguese features the continued philosophizing of the obsessed speaker as she falls in love while trying to justify that love to herself and to her belovèd.

Sonnet 11: “And therefore if to love can be desert”

And therefore if to love can be desert,
I am not all unworthy. Cheeks as pale
As these you see, and trembling knees that fail
To bear the burden of a heavy heart,—
This weary minstrel-life that once was girt
To climb Aornus, and can scarce avail
To pipe now ‘gainst the valley nightingale
A melancholy music,—why advert
To these things? O Belovèd, it is plain
I am not of thy worth nor for thy place!
And yet, because I love thee, I obtain
From that same love this vindicating grace,
To live on still in love, and yet in vain,—
To bless thee, yet renounce thee to thy face.

Commentary on Sonnet 11: “And therefore if to love can be desert”

First Quatrain:  Berating Her Own Value

And therefore if to love can be desert,
I am not all unworthy. Cheeks as pale
As these you see, and trembling knees that fail
To bear the burden of a heavy heart,—

The speaker, who has so often berated her own value, now continues to evolve toward accepting the idea that she might, in fact, be “not all unworthy.” She contends that if the ability to love can be deserved, as an award for goodness or service, she feels that it just might be possible for her to have enough importance to accept the love of one so obviously above her.

Again, however, she begins her litany of flaws; she has pale cheeks, and her knees tremble so that she can hardly “bear the burden of a heavy heart.” She continues her string of self-deprecations into the second quatrain and first tercet.

Second Quatrain:  To Accomplish Great Things

This weary minstrel-life that once was girt
To climb Aornus, and can scarce avail
To pipe now ‘gainst the valley nightingale
A melancholy music,—why advert

The speaker has lived a “weary minstrel-life,” and while she once thought of accomplishing great things, as Alexander the Great had taken Aornus, she now finds herself barely able to compose a few melancholy poems.

She finds it difficult even to compete “’gainst the valley nightingale,” but she has also decided, while both thinking of and obsessing over these negative aspects of the life, to reconsider her possibilities. She realizes that she is merely distracting herself from more important issues.

First Tercet: Concentration on Negativity

To these things? O Belovèd, it is plain
I am not of thy worth nor for thy place!
And yet, because I love thee, I obtain

Thus the speaker asks herself, “why advert / / To these things?” Indeed, why concentrate on the past negativity, when such a glorious future has been heralded? She then directly addresses her suitor, claiming, “O Belovèd, it is plain / I am not of thy worth.” 

She still insists on making it known how aware she is that she is not of her suitor’s station. However, she is now willing to consider that they might be able to grow a relationship.

Second Tercet: Advancing a Philosophical Position

From that same love this vindicating grace,
To live on still in love, and yet in vain,—
To bless thee, yet renounce thee to thy face.

The speaker advances an odd philosophical position that because she loves the man, that love will offer her “vindicating grace.” Thus she can accept his love and love him while still allowing herself to believe that such a love is “in vain” and that she can still “bless” him with her love, while simultaneously she can “renounce [him] to [his] face.”

The speaker’s complex of accepting and rejecting allows her continue to believe she is both worthy yet somehow not quite worthy of this love. 

She cannot forsake the notion that she can never be equal to him, yet she can accept his love and the prospect that somehow, somewhere beyond her ability to grasp it is the possibility that despite all of her flaws, she ultimately is deserving of such a great and glorious love.

Sonnet 12:  “Indeed this very love which is my boast”

In sonnet 12, the speaker is becoming more comfortable, realizing that she is truly loved by her suitor.  Still she gives him all credit for her ability to love as deeply as she does.

Sonnet 12:  “Indeed this very love which is my boast”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 12” from Sonnets from the Portuguese portrays the speaker as she muses on the happiness of having fallen in love with one so illustrious and accomplished as is her suitor.

Sonnet 12:  “Indeed this very love which is my boast”

Indeed this very love which is my boast,
And which, when rising up from breast to brow,
Doth crown me with a ruby large enow
To draw men’s eyes and prove the inner cost,—
This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,
I should not love withal, unless that thou
Hadst set me an example, shown me how,
When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed,
And love called love. And thus, I cannot speak
Of love even, as a good thing of my own:
Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,
And placed it by thee on a golden throne,—
And that I love (O soul, we must be meek!)
Is by thee only, whom I love alone.

Commentary on Sonnet 12:  “Indeed this very love which is my boast”

First Quatrain:  The Effects of Love

Indeed this very love which is my boast,
And which, when rising up from breast to brow,
Doth crown me with a ruby large enow
To draw men’s eyes and prove the inner cost,—

The speaker recognizes the effects of the love she is experiencing.  She flushes red-cheeked as she muses on her good luck.  She believes it entirely appropriate that she “boast” because of her good fortune.  

She thinks that whoever sees her can understand that she is glowing with love from “breast to brow” because of her wonderful, dynamic suitor. 

The speaker reports that her heart has gained speed, rushing to her face the blood results in the blushing that announces to the world that she is in love.  She no longer can keep private her joy at being loved.  Her feelings have become too full, too great to contain with a neutral pose.

Second Quatrain:  Learning Deep Love

This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,
I should not love withal, unless that thou
Hadst set me an example, shown me how,
When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed,

Then the speaker declares something truly astonishing: she admits that without her beloved teaching her how to love at such a depth, she would not have been able to do so.  Without his example, she would never have understood how love can completely engulf the heart and mind.

The speaker gradually little by little is coming to comprehend the importance of her burgeoning affection.  She now begins to realize the glorious state of affairs that actually started as soon as their eyes first connected in their first love’s deep glance.

First Tercet:  Naming the Emotion

And love called love. And thus, I cannot speak
Of love even, as a good thing of my own:
Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,

The speaker realized for the first time the beauty of naming that magnificent emotion “love”— for it was then that for her, indeed, “love called love”—only at that momentous occasion when the pair of lovers first looked deeply into each other’s eyes.

Not only was the emotion labeled, but the feeling itself was also brought forth. The emotion resided within her deep heart; her beloved brought the emotion into her open consciousness. 

She finds that she still “cannot speak” about love without acknowledging the existence, the existential presence, of her beloved. For her, love and her suitor are virtually synonymous because he “snatched up” her soul at a time that it was “all faint and weak.”

Second Tercet:  Liberating a Weak Spirit

And placed it by thee on a golden throne,—
And that I love (O soul, we must be meek!)
Is by thee only, whom I love alone.

After liberating her faint, weak soul, her suitor raised her and set her beside him, “on a golden throne.” Metaphorically, she likens the bliss of his love to a royal asset of high value—an apt comparison because of all the many references to royalty she has employed to describe her suitor.

The speaker again bestows all credit to her suitor for the being able to love as profoundly as she does.  She even tells her own soul that “we must be meek.”  The speaker never wants to lose the humility she was blessed with.  She never wants to forget that her own soul is the repository of all love.

Sonnet 13:  “And wilt thou have me fashion into speech”

The speaker in Sonnet 13 muses on the idea of composing a verse about her newly found emotion of love, but she hesitates for she fears touching the grief that still molests her.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 13:  “And wilt thou have me fashion into speech”

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 13” from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker attempts to respond to her suitor’s encouragement to transcribe her feelings for him in a poem, but she does not yet believe she is ready to plumb the depths of her feelings.

Sonnet 13:  “And wilt thou have me fashion into speech”

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 drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach
My hand to hold my spirit so far off
From myself—me—that I should bring thee proof
In words, of love hid in me out of reach.
Nay, let the silence of my womanhood
Commend my woman-love to thy belief,—
Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,
And rend the garment of my life, in brief,
By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,
Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.

Commentary on Sonnet 13:  “And wilt thou have me fashion into speech”

The speaker in Sonnet 13 muses on the idea of composing a verse about her newly found emotion of love, but she hesitates for she fears touching the grief that still molests her.

First Quatrain:  Should She Express Her Love?

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?

The speaker beseeches her beloved wondering if she should “fashion into speech” how she feels about him. She feels that she may not yet be ready to express verbally the feelings that are beginning to move her. Undoubtedly, she believes that outward verbal expression may hamper her unique emotions.

If she translated her feelings into words, she fears they would behave as a “torch” and would “cast light on each” of their faces.  However, that would happen only if the wind did not blow out their fire. 

She believes she must protect her increasing emotion from all outside forces; therefore, she opens with a question. She cannot be certain that remaining silent is any longer the proper way to behave.

Second Quatrain:  Unsteadied by Emotion

I drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach
My hand to hold my spirit so far off
From myself—me—that I should bring thee proof
In words, of love hid in me out of reach.

The speaker then dramatically asserts that she, “drop[s] at [his] feet”; she does this because she cannot remain steady in his presence, as she is overcome with emotion. She becomes so agitated with the notion of love, and she cannot calm down in order to write what might be coherent about her intense feelings.

The sonnet suggests that her beloved has asked the poet/speaker for a poem about her feelings for him; however, she believes that her love is so profoundly heartfelt that she may not be able to shapes its significance in words.

The speaker feels that she cannot perceive the appropriate images for they are, “hid in me out of reach.” She feels that she must wait for a time when she has found enough tranquility to be able to “fashion into speech” the complex, deep feelings she is experiencing because of her love for this man.

First Tercet:   Remaining Self-Aware

Nay, let the silence of my womanhood
Commend my woman-love to thy belief,—
Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,

The speaker concludes therefore that “the silence of [her] womanhood” will have to function to persuade him that she does possess those deep feeling of love for him.  She confesses  that she has remained a bit distant from her beloved, when she says she is “unwon.” 

Although he has “wooed” her, she feels that she must keep a portion of her self out of sight for very deeply personal reasons. She must make sure she stays present and connected in her own self.

Second Tercet:   Dramatizing the Depth of Pain

And rend the garment of my life, in brief,
By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,
Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.

The sonnet sequence has dramatized the depth of the pain and melancholy the speaker has endured her entire life-long. She is still suffering that same pain and sadness. She thus again reveals that if she too soon tries to place her feeling into a poem, she would perhaps only “convey [her heart’s] grief.”

The speaker remains fearful of the notion that “a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude” could impede the power with which she is being propelled toward completely accepting the current relationship with her new-found belovèd.

Sonnet 14:  “If thou must love me, let it be for nought”

The speaker insists that her paramour love her only for the sake of love and not for any qualities that she possesses, such as her smile or the way she speaks.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 14:  “If thou must love me, let it be for nought”

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 14” from Sonnets from the Portuguese now graciously receives her suitor’s affection; however, she wishes to alert him to what she expects from their relationship.  She therefore defines the nature of the love she expects the two to share.

Sonnet 14:  “If thou must love me, let it be for nought”

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
“I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”—
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.

Commentary on Sonnet 14:  “If thou must love me, let it be for nought”

The speaker insists that her paramour love her only for the sake of love and not for any qualities that she possesses, such as her smile or the way she speaks.

First Quatrain:  Remaining Tentative

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
“I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought

The speaker’s tentativeness remains even as she contemplates the joy of such a love relationship.  Her feeling of procrastination is all she has to shield her heart if things should later go wrong.   She signals the possibility of acceptance by saying, “If thou must love me,” and not by the usual insulting phrase, if-you-really-love-me.

The simple, single term “must” heralds a change is on the horizon.  It shows that she does realize the true nature of the man’s love, even though she cannot bring herself to have complete faith that something in her nature might not spoil even such a true love.

The speaker asks pragmatically that he love her for love alone, and not for the physical, superficial qualities that so often attract lovers.  She does not want her lover to be in love merely with her smile or the way she speaks.

Second Quatrain:  Disdaining Superficiality

That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”—
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,

The speaker now unveils her reason for disdaining the superficial kind of attention often engaged in by lovers.  Those qualities all too often provide “a trick of thought.”  Suppose her smile is pleasant to him one day but not the next.  If he were fixated on that smile, she fears his love for her would suffer.

The speaker does not want her partner’s love to be ruled by moods.  She again supposes that if she offers him a kind glance but then later a melancholic sadness appears, that love might again be affected negatively.  

Her speech to him may also vary and not always delight him.  She knows she cannot always engage in conversation that is filled only with pleasantries.

The speaker well understands that love founded on change is not a lasting, solid love.  Thus, she instructs him that she knows that the physical is wont to change, but love should not.  She wishes to make him know that she can only accept an unconditional love based on permanence—not change.

First Tercet:  No Pity

May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore

The speaker then offers a further demand that he not love her out of pity.  She has often delved into the depths of her melancholy which has caused her to weep long and often.  And if his love were tinged with sympathy for her sad lot, what would happen if were to “forget to weep”?

She fears that even if or when she likely becomes a happy woman, her lover would then have one less reason to love her, if he had based his love on giving the poor thing sympathy.

Second Tercet:   Existence is Enough

Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.

It is very important to the speaker to make known to her belovèd that she wants to be loved for no other reason than that she exists.  If loved because of physical attributes, or the mere fact that she has suffered and somehow deserves to be happy, true love could never exist under those influences.

Therefore, if her lover will do as she requests and just love her for “love’s sake,” she is confident that their love will remain “through love’s eternity.”

Sonnet 15:  “Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear”

The speaker in Sonnet 15 concentrates on her ambiguous facial expressions that have yet to catch up with her overflowing heart.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 15:  “Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 15” from Sonnets from the Portuguese finds the speaker again on the edge of doubt. She has lived with a gloomy countenance for so long that she is reluctant to change it to one of sunshine and gaiety, even as her belovèd apparently chides her for the melancholy.

Sonnet 15:  “Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear”

Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear
Too calm and sad a face in front of thine;
For we two look two ways, and cannot shine
With the same sunlight on our brow and hair.
On me thou lookest with no doubting care,
As on a bee shut in a crystalline;
Since sorrow hath shut me safe in love’s divine,
And to spread wing and fly in the outer air
Were most impossible failure, if I strove
To fail so. But I look on thee—on thee—
Beholding, besides love, the end of love,
Hearing oblivion beyond memory;
As one who sits and gazes from above,
Over the rivers to the bitter sea.

Commentary on Sonnet 15:  “Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear”

The speaker in Sonnet 15 concentrates on her ambiguous facial expressions that have yet to catch up with her overflowing heart.

First Quatrain:  A Solemn Expression

Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear
Too calm and sad a face in front of thine;
For we two look two ways, and cannot shine
With the same sunlight on our brow and hair.

Addressing her belovèd, the speaker begs him not to worry over her solemn expression. She has experienced great difficulty accepting this love relationship, in part because of her penchant for melancholy. She has suffered physically and mentally for so long that it has become a part of her character and continues to disfigure her face.

She laments that she cannot change her facial expression so quickly, even with the shining example of her brilliant lover before her. She dramatically asserts that because the two of them each “look two ways,” they “cannot shine / With the same sunlight” on their faces.

Second Quatrain:   A Transformative State

On me thou lookest with no doubting care,
As on a bee shut in a crystalline;
Since sorrow hath shut me safe in love’s divine,
And to spread wing and fly in the outer air

The speaker avers that he is able to look at her with great excitement and fervor without doubt or perturbation because he is as content as if he were observing “a bee in a crystalline.” But for her, the experience is still in a transformative state.

She has been engulfed in “sorrow” for such an extended period of time that she feels she is still “shut [ ] safe in love’s divine.” Thus, still somewhat paralyzed by the full prospect of love, her unexercised limbs are still incapable of functioning well.

First Tercet:  A Metaphorical Bird

Were most impossible failure, if I strove
To fail so. But I look on thee—on thee—
Beholding, besides love, the end of love,

The speaker invokes the metaphor of a bird flying or perhaps a bee that would “spread wing and fly,” but she claims that if she tried to “fly,” she would crash in failure. Such a failure would be so odious that she calls it a “most impossible failure.” And she insists that she does not dare “fail so.” 

When she looks at her belovèd, she sees such pure love that she thinks she sees through eternity to the “end of love”—not the stoppage of love but the goal of love, or the result that keeps her somewhat cautious.

Second Tercet:  Transported by Love

Hearing oblivion beyond memory;
As one who sits and gazes from above,
Over the rivers to the bitter sea.

The speaker senses in her lover’s look a perfection of love that allows her not only to see but hear “oblivion beyond memory.” She seems to be transported to a height from which she can observe the phenomena below. 

She can see “the rivers [flowing] to the bitter sea.” The sea remains “bitter” for now, but with all those rivers feeding it, she senses that one day she will look on it with kinder, more confident eyes.

Sonnet 16:  “And yet, because thou overcomest so”

The speaker finally capitulates to the all consuming love that she has tried to deny herself, allowing herself only a speck of doubt.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 16:  “And yet, because thou overcomest so”

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 16” from Sonnets from the Portuguese dramatizes her nearly complete acceptance of the love from her “noble” suitor.  She creates a colorful metaphor to elucidate her feelings.

Sonnet 16:  “And yet, because thou overcomest so”

And yet, because thou overcomest so,
Because thou art more noble and like a king,
Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling
Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow
Too close against thine heart henceforth to know
How it shook when alone. Why, conquering
May prove as lordly and complete a thing
In lifting upward, as in crushing low!
And as a vanquished soldier yields his sword
To one who lifts him from the bloody earth,
Even so, Belovèd, I at last record,
Here ends my strife. If thou invite me forth,
I rise above abasement at the word.
Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth.

Commentary on Sonnet 16:  “And yet, because thou overcomest so”

The speaker can finally be seen as capitulating to the all consuming love that she has tried to deny herself, allowing herself only a speck of doubt.

First Quatrain:   Overcoming Fears and Doubts

And yet, because thou overcomest so,
Because thou art more noble and like a king,
Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling
Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow

The speaker, picking up from prior adversity, can now give in to her belovèd’s advances because he has, at last, been able to overcome her fears and doubts. She again likens him to royalty: “thou art more noble and like a king, / Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling / Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow.”

Her lover has the kingly powers of protecting even a doubtful heart such as her own. He can place his royal purple cape around her shoulders and affect the very beating of her heart.

Second Quatrain:  A Fearful Heart

Too close against thine heart henceforth to know
How it shook when alone. Why, conquering
May prove as lordly and complete a thing
In lifting upward, as in crushing low!

As her heart beats close to his, the speaker finds it difficult to grasp that it once felt so afraid of life and living when it found itself solitary and isolated. She has discovered that she can, in fact, imagine herself lifted from her self-imposed prison of melancholy. 

She can succumb to upward mobility as readily as she did to the downward spiral, “as in crushing low!”

First Tercet:  A Bizarre Comparison

And as a vanquished soldier yields his sword
To one who lifts him from the bloody earth,
Even so, Belovèd, I at last record,

The speaker then dramatically and bizarrely compares her situation metaphorically to a “soldier” who surrenders in battle as “one who lifts him from the bloody earth.” The enemy becomes nurturing once his foe has been vanquished.  But for her, the battle was very real, and thus the metaphor remains quite apt. Thus she can finally and completely surrender.

Second Tercet:  Reserving a Space to Doubt

Here ends my strife. If thou invite me forth,
I rise above abasement at the word.
Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth.

The speaker’s handing over of weapons and defensive mechanisms is accompanied by her revelation that “here ends my strife.” True to character, however, she must at least reserve some bit of possible future failure by stating her declaration in a conditional clause, “if thou invite me forth.” 

She emphasizes “thou,” to make it clear that her belovèd is the only one to whom she could ever say these things.

The speaker has quite likely almost one hundred per cent become convinced that he has invited her, but she still feels that she has to keep any downturn in her sights. But if he does, in fact, keep that invitation open for her, she will be able to transcend her pain and rise above all the sorrow that has kept her abased for so many years.

Once again, the speaker is giving him a great deal of power as she suggests that as her new attitude will “make thy love larger,” it will also “enlarge my worth.” Thus loving him will increase her own value, not in large part because, in her eyes, his value is as large as a king’s worth. His royalty will become hers.

Sonnet 17:  “My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes”

In sonnet 17, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s always melancholy speaker muses on the poetics of her relationship with her poet/lover.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 17:  “My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s speaker always retains a hint of melancholy and doubt as she journeys through her sequence of love songs to her beloved. 

The speaker’s charm remains subtle while always tinged with the possibility of sorrow.  Even as that former sadness in which she dwelt so heavily subsides, its specter seems forever to simmer just below the surface of consciousness.

Sonnet 17: “My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes”

My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes
God set between his After and Before,
And strike up and strike off the general roar
Of the rushing worlds a melody that floats
In a serene air purely. Antidotes
Of medicated music, answering for
Mankind’s forlornest uses, thou canst pour
From thence into their ears. God’s will devotes
Thine to such ends, and mine to wait on thine.
How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?
A hope, to sing by gladly ? or a fine
Sad memory, with thy songs to interfuse?
A shade, in which to sing–of palm or pine?
A grave, on which to rest from singing ? Choose.

Commentary on Sonnet 17:  “My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes”

In sonnet 17, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s always melancholy speaker muses on the poetics of her relationship with her poet/lover.

First Quatrain:  Praise for Poetic Prowess

My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes
God set between his After and Before,
And strike up and strike off the general roar
Of the rushing worlds a melody that floats

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 17” from Sonnets from the Portuguese addresses her belovèd, asserting that he “can[ ] touch on all the notes / God set between His After and Before.” 

The speaker’s high praise for her lover’s poetic prowess demonstrates a shift in her observation from her own lowly station to his art. Because the speaker herself is a poet, she has, no doubt, known that she must eventually address the issue that both she and her belovèd share the same avocation. 

It might well be expected that she will elevate his while remaining humble about her own, and that expectation is fulfilled in this poetic offering. 

The speaker credits him with the ability to create worlds that make the ineffable mystery understandable to the ordinary consciousness; he is able to “strike up and strike off the general roar / Of the rushing worlds.” And his talent makes them “a melody that floats.”

Second Quatrain:   Curing Boredom

In a serene air purely. Antidotes
Of medicated music, answering for
Mankind’s forlornest uses, thou canst pour
From thence into their ears. God’s will devotes

The melody “floats / In a serene air purely.” Mankind will find his dramatization “medicated music,” which will cure the boredom of “mankind’s forlornest uses.” Her lover has the unique ability to spill his melodic strains “into their ears.”

First Tercet:  A Drama Sanctioned by the Divine

Thine to such ends, and mine to wait on thine.
How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?
A hope, to sing by gladly ? or a fine

The speaker asserts that her greatly talented lover’s drama is, indeed, sanctioned by the Divine, and she is motivated as she patiently expects his creations to flaunt their magic and music to her as well.

The speaker puts a complicated question to her belovèd: “How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?” In that the speaker would perfectly fulfill her position as muse, she makes clear that she will be right alongside him in his every effort to sustain his God-given abilities. 

Regardless of the theme or subject, whether it be, “a hope, to sing by gladly,” the speaker suggests that she will continue to praise where necessity takes her.

Second Tercet:  Useful Powers of Sorrow

Sad memory, with thy songs to interfuse?
A shade, in which to sing–of palm or pine?
A grave, on which to rest from singing ? Choose.

This speaker, of course, will not relinquish her references to melancholy; thus her question continues with a set of propositions: perhaps she will offer “a fine / Sad memory.” She will, of course, not be surprised that her powers of sorrow may be useful to them both in their poetic pursuits.

But the speaker also wonders if death themes might intrude at some point: “A shade, in which to sing—of palm or pine? / A grave, on which to rest from singing?”  It just may be that they will both become so satisfied with their comfortable love that they will have to rely more on imagination than they had ever thought.

Thus the speaker admonishes her poetically talented belovèd that at some point they will be offered many choices, and they will at that time have to “choose.”

Sonnet 18:  “I never gave a lock of hair away”

In sonnet 18, the speaker dramatizes the simple act of giving a lock of her to her lover.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 18:  “I never gave a lock of hair away”

Sonnet 18 from Sonnets from the Portuguese reveals the speaker musing on her feelings as she affords her lover the gift of a lock of her hair, of which she emphasizes the purity in that no other man has touched it.

The tentative and lonely speaker continues to create little dramas in her developing relationship with her friend and belovèd, who happens to be a fellow poet.  No doubt her lover appreciates her musing and feels a great sense of pride in having her composing for his benefit.

Sonnet 18:  “I never gave a lock of hair away”

I never gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,
Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully,
I ring out to the full brown length and say
‘Take it.’ My day of youth went yesterday;
My hair no longer bounds to my foot’s glee,
Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree,
As girls do, any more: it only may
Now shade on two pale cheeks the mark of tears,
Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside
Through sorrow’s trick. I thought the funeral-shears
Would take this first, but Love is justified,—
Take it thou,—finding pure, from all those years,
The kiss my mother left here when she died.

Commentary on Sonnet 18:  “I never gave a lock of hair away”

In sonnet 18, the speaker is dramatizing a little ritual of the simple act of giving a lock of her to her lover.

First Quatrain:  A Virgin Lock

I never gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,
Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully,
I ring out to the full brown length and say

The speaker claims that she has never given any other man a lock of her hair; it seems to be such a special act that she is now conferring on her lover this special lock. She has excised a few strands that extend “to the full brown length.”

The strands rest upon her “fingers” as she philosophically dramatizes the event by saying a few words over them.  The object takes on a status of a sacred relic as she seem almost prayerful in handling them.

This speaker is always full of drama, from agonizing over her miseries to proclaiming her now vast love for her belovèd. Her life is the stuff and substance of her poetry, and she lives it in each moment.

Second Quatrain:  Justifying the Gift

‘Take it.’ My day of youth went yesterday;
My hair no longer bounds to my foot’s glee,
Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree,
As girls do, any more: it only may

The speaker hands the hair to her lover and commands him, “Take it.” She then reveals that she is no longer young, for “my day of youth went yesterday.” She no longer runs and jumps and skips thus causing her hair to jostle about as she did when she was a child. 

The speaker no longer performs little rituals with it such as offering it to birds to build their nests.  She needs to justify giving away this lock of hair, just as her personality motivates her to justify everything she does and feels.

First Tercet:  Covering Her Poor Cheeks

Now shade on two pale cheeks the mark of tears,
Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside
Through sorrow’s trick. I thought the funeral-shears

In the first tercet of the sestet, the speaker then divulges the use to which she has long put her locks of hair, and it is not surprising that that use would be bound somehow to her sorrow with which has lived her entire life. 

The speaker does not disappoint as she reveals that the only use for those locks of brown hair is to cover her poor cheeks which are so often streaked with tears.  She has shed tears so often and so profusely that she hardly recognizes herself without those streak running down her face.

Those locks of hair have simply hung down over those tear-stained cheeks, and they have learned to hide the sorrow that urges those tears. She has become habituated to tilting her head a certain way to encourage the hair to act as a curtain to shield her sadness.

Second Tercet:  Her Chaste Hair

Would take this first, but Love is justified,—
Take it thou,—finding pure, from all those years,
The kiss my mother left here when she died.

The speaker’s final dramatic pose reveals that she thought some mortician would be the one to cut her hair. But then her lover came along and “justified” her cutting it herself and presenting it to him.

The speaker then discloses that the hair is as pure as the day her mother left “the kiss” on it before she died. She is repeating and emphasizing her claim that no other man has had access to her chaste hair.

Sonnet 19:  “The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise”

The two lovers exchange locks of hair, and the speaker makes a ceremony of the exchange as she again emphasizes the royalty of her lover’s station and talent.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 19:  “The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise”

In sonnet 18 of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker dramatically celebrated giving a lock of her hair to her belovèd, and the little drama continues with sonnet 19, as she receives a lock from him.

The two lovers exchange their locks of hair, and the speaker dramatizes a ceremony of the exchange, as she again celebrates the royalty of her lover’s station and talent.

Sonnet 19:  “The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise”

The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise;
I barter curl for curl upon that mart,
And from my poet’s forehead to my heart
Receive this lock which outweighs argosies,—
As purply black, as erst to Pindar’s eyes
The dim purpureal tresses gloomed athwart
The nine white Muse-brows. For this counterpart,
The bay-crown’s shade, Belovèd, I surmise,
Still lingers on thy curl, it is so black!
Thus, with a fillet of smooth-kissing breath,
I tie the shadows safe from gliding back,
And lay the gift where nothing hindereth;
Here on my heart, as on thy brow, to lack
No natural heat till mine grows cold in death.

Commentary on Sonnet 19:  “The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise”

The two lovers exchange locks of hair, and the speaker makes a ceremony of the exchange as she again emphasizes the royalty of her lover’s station and talent.

First Quatrain:  Oration and Commemoration

The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise;
I barter curl for curl upon that mart,
And from my poet’s forehead to my heart
Receive this lock which outweighs argosies,—

As in sonnet 18, the speaker offers a bit of an oration, commemorating the exchange of locks of hair between the two lovers. She metaphorically compares the soul to a marketplace, the Rialto, an important commercial district in Venice.  The speaker employs a commercial metaphor because of the trading of items that the two lovers are engaging in.

The speaker then reveals that she is accepting the lock of hair from the head of her beloved with all the enthusiasm that an individual might express if she were presented with large loads of valuable cargoes from vast commercial sailing ships.

The speaker enhances the value of that lock of hair by stating that it weighs even more than “argosies.” It is even more valuable than all the cargo arriving in vast commercial vessels that travel the seas.

Second Quatrain:  Purple Black

As purply black, as erst to Pindar’s eyes
The dim purpureal tresses gloomed athwart
The nine white Muse-brows. For this counterpart,
The bay-crown’s shade, Belovèd, I surmise,

In the second quatrain, the speaker emphasizes the blackness of her lover’s lock. The “curl,” she claims, is so black that it is “purply black.”  Again, she employs the color of royalty to distinguish the high station of her talented, handsome, accomplished lover.

The speaker alludes to the ancient Greek poet, Pindar, who is considered the greatest of the nine most famous ancient Greek poets, whom she references as “the nine white Muse-brows.”  The speaker’s lover’s lock is as significant, and he is as important to the poetry world as those Greek poets are.

First Tercet:  Pindar Allusion

Still lingers on thy curl, it is so black!
Thus, with a fillet of smooth-kissing breath,
I tie the shadows safe from gliding back,

The speaker voices her assumption that “the bay-crown’s shade, Beloved / / Still lingers on the curl.” The “bay-crown” refers to that most famous poet, Pindar, whose shadow-presence influences her lover’s talent through his “purpureal tresses.”

The speaker insists that because of the high value she places on that black lock of hair, she will keep the lock close to her heart to keep it warm.  Likely, the speaker will place it in a locket, but she exaggerates her drama by saying she is binding it with her “smooth-kissing breath” and tying “the shadows safe from gliding back.”

Second Tercet:  Ceremony of the Lock

And lay the gift where nothing hindereth;
Here on my heart, as on thy brow, to lack
No natural heat till mine grows cold in death.

In placing the lock next to her heart, the speaker is safe-guarding the “gift where nothing” can disturb it.  Close to the speaker’s heart, the lock will “lack / No natural heat” until, of course, the speaker “grows cold in death.”  The ceremony of the lock exchange is complete, and the love affair will then progress to the next important stage.

Sonnet 20:  “Beloved, my Beloved, when I think”

Sonnet 20 from Sonnets from the Portuguese finds the speaker in a pensive mood, dramatizing her awe at the difference a year has made in her life.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 20:  “Beloved, my Beloved, when I think”

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 20” from Sonnets from the Portuguese remembers that just year ago, she would not have been able to imagine that love so important as her belovèd would break the chains of sorrow with which has been bound for many years.

This sonnet finds the speaker in a pensive mood, dramatizing her awe at the difference a year has made in her life.  The speaker is gaining confidence in her ability to attract and return the kind of love that she has yearned for but heretofore considered herself unworthy of possessing. 

Sonnet 20:  “Beloved, my Beloved, when I think”

Beloved, my Beloved, when I think
That thou wast in the world a year ago,
What time I sate alone here in the snow
And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink
No moment at thy voice … but, link by link,
Went counting all my chains, as if that so
They never could fall off at any blow
Struck by thy possible hand … why, thus I drink
Of life’s great cup of wonder! Wonderful,
Never to feel thee thrill the day or night
With personal act or speech,—nor ever cull
Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull,
Who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.


Commentary on Sonnet 20:  “Beloved, my Beloved, when I think”

Sonnet 20 finds the speaker in a pensive mood, dramatizing her awe at the difference a year has made in her life.

First Quatrain:  The Difference a Year Makes

Beloved, my Beloved, when I think
That thou wast in the world a year ago,
What time I sate alone here in the snow
And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink 

The speaker is reminiscing about her feelings “a year ago” before she had met her belovèd. She sat watching the snow that remained without his “footprint.” The silence surrounding her lingered without “thy voice.” 

The speaker is structuring her remarks in when/then clauses; she will be saying, “when” this was true, “then” something else was true.

Thus, in the first quatrain she is beginning her clause with “when I think” and what she is thinking about is the time before her belovèd and she had met. She continues the “when” clause until the last line of the second quatrain.

Second Quatrain:  Never to be Broken Chains

No moment at thy voice … but, link by link,
Went counting all my chains, as if that so
They never could fall off at any blow
Struck by thy possible hand … why, thus I drink 

Continuing to recount what she did and how she felt before her lover came into her life, she reminds her reader/listener that she was bound by “all my chains” which she “went counting” and believing would never be broken. 

The speaker makes it clear that her belovèd has, in fact, been responsible for breaking those chains of pain and sorrow that kept her bound and weeping.

The speaker then moves into the “then” construction, averring “why, thus I drink / Of life’s great cup of wonder!” At this point, she is simply experiencing the awe of wonder that she should be so fortunate to have her belovèd strike those metaphorical blows against the chains of sorrow that kept her in misery.

First Tercet:  Near Incredulous

Of life’s great cup of wonder! Wonderful,
Never to feel thee thrill the day or night
With personal act or speech,—nor ever cull 

The speaker then expounds on what she had not been able to foretell as she remained unable to ever “feel thee thrill the day or night / With personal act or speech.”   The speaker is nearly incredulous that she could have remained without the love that has become so important to her.

Second Tercet:  Dull as Atheists

Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull,
Who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.

The speaker adds another part of her astonishing “wonder”: that she was not able to “cull / Some prescience” that he might exist. She sees now that she was “as dull” as “atheists,” those unimaginative souls, “who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.”  

The speaker’s belovèd is such a marvelous work of nature that she imbues him with a certain divine stature, and she considers herself somewhat “dull” for not being about to guess that such a one existed. 

As atheists are unable to surmise of Supreme Intelligence guiding the ordered cosmos, she was incapable of imagining that one such as her belovèd would come along and free her from her self-induced coma of sadness.

Sonnet 21:  “Say over again, and yet once over again”

The speaker is becoming habituated to listening to her beloved tell her, “I love you.” Thus she is instructing him to tell her repeatedly those beautiful words.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 21:  “Say over again, and yet once over again”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s speaker in “Sonnet 21” from Sonnets from the Portuguese seems to be speaking in a giddy manner, somewhat out of character for her. The speaker is begging her lover to continue his repetition of the words she had long craved to hear.  

She is in the process of changing her attitude from timid to self-assuredness. The speaker is becoming habituated to listening to her beloved tell her,” I love you.” Thus she is instructing him to tell her repeatedly those beautiful words.

Sonnet 21:  “Say over again, and yet once over again”

Say over again, and yet once over again,
That thou dost love me. Though the word repeated
Should seem “a cuckoo-song,” as thou dost treat it,
Remember, never to the hill or plain,
Valley and wood, without her cuckoo-strain
Comes the fresh Spring in all her green completed.
Belovèd, I, amid the darkness greeted
By a doubtful spirit-voice, in that doubt’s pain
Cry, “Speak once more—thou lovest!” Who can fear
Too many stars, though each in heaven shall roll,
Too many flowers, though each shall crown the year?
Say thou dost love me, love me, love me—toll
The silver iterance!—only minding, Dear,
To love me also in silence with thy soul.

Commentary on Sonnet 21:  “Say over again, and yet once over again”

The speaker is becoming habituated to listening to her beloved tell her, “I love you.” Thus she is instructing him to tell her repeatedly those beautiful words.

First Quatrain:  Giddy with Love

Say over again, and yet once over again,
That thou dost love me. Though the word repeated
Should seem “a cuckoo-song,” as thou dost treat it,
Remember, never to the hill or plain,

The speaker gently commands her beloved friend to repeat to her “over again, and yet once over again / That thou dost love me.”   Even though the speaker confesses that the repetition of that same sentiment over and over might be perceived as somewhat giddy and as repetitious as the cuckoo bird’s proclamations, she justifies her demand by averring that nature is filled with glorious repetition.

The speaker reminds her beloved and also herself that the season of spring never arrives until the hills and meadows are spread out with the same green that the valleys and woods also display and with the same nutty cuckoo’s repeated plaints.

Second Quatrain:  Human Nature’s Over-Sensitivity

Valley and wood, without her cuckoo-strain
Comes the fresh Spring in all her green completed.
Belovèd, I, amid the darkness greeted
By a doubtful spirit-voice, in that doubt’s pain

The speaker compares the world of humanity to the realm of nature to support and even make right human nature’s at times over-sensitivity, especially the speaker’s own penchant for that quality. The speaker has simply become more and more delighted in listening to her lover repeat his love for her.  She has at last become capable of believing his words. 

The speaker therefore continues in the new-found state of her frivolity in demanding that he continue to repeat his declaration of love for her. Then the speaker lets him know that sometime during nighttime, her old evil spirits had once again caused her to doubt.  

Thus, “in that doubt’s pain,” she became constrained to demand of him that he repeat those beautiful words of love again for her to hear.  Therefore, with this episode in mind, the speaker vehemently demands: “Speak once more—thou lovest!”

First Tercet:   Too Many Stars or Flowers

Cry, “Speak once more—thou lovest!” Who can fear
Too many stars, though each in heaven shall roll,
Too many flowers, though each shall crown the year

After her confession, the speaker poses an inquiry that further makes her feel more comfortable in making her demand to hear those words from the lips of her beloved.  She insists that people would not likely be against “too many stars”  or even “too many flowers.”  

It is thus that the speaker feels there is no problem with her asking him to repeat his declamation.  She, in fact, wants to hear it repeatedly.  As stars and flowers repeat their present in the cosmos, her little demand will leave little intrusion.

Second Tercet:  A Bold Request

Say thou dost love me, love me, love me—toll
The silver iterance!—only minding, Dear,
To love me also in silence with thy soul.

The second tercet finds the speaker  dramatizing the repetition as she repeats it herself: “Say thou dost love me, love me, love me.”  The speaker describes the repetition as a “silver iterance,” which asserts its quality as that of a bell.  The speaker has come to strongly desire to hear the “toll” of her lover’s “silver iterance!”

The speaker then offers a startling yet supremely appropriate command.  As much as she loves hearing aloud the words of love, she craves even more that her beloved, “love me also in silence with thy soul.”  

Without her lover also loving her quietly in his soul, that love would be like a husk of corn with the grain.  Hearing the word is wonderful, but intuiting the love in the soul is sublime.

Sonnet 22:  “When our two souls stand up erect and strong”

Sonnet 22 finds the speaker growing ever more fanciful as she paints a haven for the loving couple whose union is strengthened by soul force.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 22:  “When our two souls stand up erect and strong”

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 22” from Sonnets from the Portuguese contrasts the heaven created by the soul force of the lovers with the contrary state of worldly existence. In order to elevate this growing relationship to its highest pinnacle, the speaker attempts to describe the wedding of souls.

Instead of the mere, mundane marriage of minds and physical encasements as most ordinary human beings emphasize, this speaker in concerned with eternal verities. This speaker is engaged in creating a world within a world wherein the spiritual is more real than the material level of existence.

Sonnet 22:  “When our two souls stand up erect and strong”

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovèd,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

Commentary on Sonnet 22:  “When our two souls stand up erect and strong”

Sonnet 22 finds the speaker growing ever more fanciful as she paints a haven for the loving couple whose union is strengthened by soul force.

First Quatrain:  Fancying a Wedding

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong

The speaker dramatizes the couple’s wedding, fancying that their souls are standing and meeting as they draw closer and closer together in the silence facing each other. The couple resembles two angels who will merge into one. But before they merge, she allows the tips of their wings to “break into fire / At either curvèd point.”

The speaker’s other-worldly depiction at first seems to imply that she sees their love as not belonging to this world, but the reader must remember that this speaker’s exaggeration often lowers expectations as much as it elevates them.  

This speaker is convinced that the two lovers are soul-mates; thus, she would stage their marriage first at the soul level, where nothing on earth could ever detract from their union.

Second Quatrain:  United by Soul

Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song

The speaker then asks the question, what could anyone or anything earthly do to hamper their happiness? Because they are united through soul force, even on earth they can “be here contented.”  Indeed, they could be content anywhere, for as the marriage vow declares, “what God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6).

The speaker commands her belovèd to “think”; she wants him to reflect on the efficacy of remaining earth-bound in their love relationship.  If they allow themselves to ascend too high, “the angels would press on us and aspire / To drop some golden orb of perfect song / Into our deep, dear silence.”

First Tercet:  Working Out Karma

Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovèd,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

The speaker implies that they are not ready for total perfection; they must remain earthbound and contend with whatever circumstance men might cause. 

The “unfit / Contrarious moods of men” will have to be rebuked; thus, they must remain “on earth” in order to vie with them. However, the speaker is certain that the couple will be able to overcome all adversity offered by others, and their love will cause their adversaries to “recoil away.”

Second Tercet:   Better Together

And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

The speaker’s faith in the united soul force of the two lovers deems them “pure spirits,” and they will endure like a strong, self-sustaining island.  Their love will be “a place to stand and love in for a day.” Even though around them the darkness of earthly, worldly existence will trudge on, for them their haven will endure indefinitely.

Sonnet 23:  “Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead”

The speaker responds to a sweet love letter from her dear belovèd fiancé.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 23:  “Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead”

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 23” from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker dramatizes the ever-growing confidence and profound love the speaker is enjoying with her belovèd.  

She is responding to a love letter from her lover with her usual dazzling, amazement that he can love her so genuinely.  The speaker is finally accepting the still a bit unbelievable fact that she is loved very deeply by this incredible man, whom she still holds in such high esteem.

Sonnet 23:  “Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead”

Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead,
Wouldst thou miss any life in losing mine?
And would the sun for thee more coldly shine
Because of grave-damps falling round my head?
I marvelled, my Beloved, when I read
Thy thought so in the letter. I am thine—
But . . . so much to thee? Can I pour thy wine
While my hands tremble ? Then my soul, instead
Of dreams of death, resumes life’s lower range.
Then, love me, Love! look on me—breathe on me!
As brighter ladies do not count it strange,
For love, to give up acres and degree,
I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange
My near sweet view of Heaven, for earth with thee!

Commentary on Sonnet 23:  “Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead”

The speaker is responding to a sweet love letter from her dear belovèd.

First Quatrain:   Framing a Question

Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead,
Wouldst thou miss any life in losing mine?
And would the sun for thee more coldly shine
Because of grave-damps falling round my head?

Beginning with a simple question, the speaker asks, “Is it indeed so?” Next, she supplies the idea that prompts her inquiry, but then appends two additional questions. She is asking her lover if it is really true that he would miss her if she died.

But the speaker dramatizes this simple notion by asking her questions in such a vivid manner. She wonders, “would the sun for thee more coldly shine / Because of grave-damps falling round my head?” 

The speaker may be echoing her lover’s words, but she enhances them by placing them in question form.  The eerie image of “grave-damps falling” around her head evokes the mighty contrast between her imagined situation in a coffin and her moving about live upon the earth.

Second Quatrain:   Filled with Wonder

I marvelled, my Beloved, when I read
Thy thought so in the letter. I am thine—
But . . . so much to thee? Can I pour thy wine
While my hands tremble ? Then my soul, instead

Directly addressing her lover, the speaker reveals that she was filled with wonder as she “read / Thy thought so in the letter.”   Thus, the speaker then is creating her sonnet in response to her lover’s effusions in the love-letter, which reveals that the two are at the height of their passion.  

The speaker has finally accepted that she is loved very deeply by this man, but she still can be overcome with emotion when he speaks to her from his heart. She says those delicious words, “I am thine.” 

However, the speaker then finds herself in awe that she could mean so much to him. She lets him know that his admission has touched her so deeply that she is trembling: “Can I pour your wine / While my hands tremble?”

Again, the speaker dramatizes her avowal by placing it in a question.  This emphasis assumes to communicate her still amazement at her luck in love.

First Tercet:  Unique Love

Of dreams of death, resumes life’s lower range.
Then, love me, Love! look on me—breathe on me!
As brighter ladies do not count it strange,

The speaker, accepting that the answers to her questions are positive, reports that because of the unique love, she is touched to the soul and wants more than ever to live. 

Even though the speaker has dreamed of death, she now insists she will dream of life because now, her soul “resumes life’s lower range.”

The speaker then effuses, “Then, love, Love! Look on me—breathe on me!” Her passion is rousing her language; she wants to make him know how strongly her ardor has become.

Second Tercet:  Earthbound for the Sake of Love

For love, to give up acres and degree,
I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange
My near sweet view of Heaven, for earth with thee!

The speaker then asserts that as those women, who are “brighter” than she is, are willing to give up possessions and station for love, she is willing to “yield the grave for thy sake.”  Instead of dying and giving up the miseries of earth for her “near sweet view of Heaven,” she is willing to remain earthbound for his sake.

Sonnet 24:  “Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife”

The speaker compares the negative attitudes of others to a “clasping knife” that she will simply close up to rid her love of danger and damage.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 24:  “Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife”

In sonnet 24 from Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s strategy resembles the metaphysical poet’s use of the strange conceit as she compares the world’s harshness to a clasping knife. 

John Donne often dramatized with this device in his poems of seduction.  He employed the ghost metaphor in “The Apparition,” and he used blood in the poem, “The Flea.”  Both abundantly odd choices for such a poem that seeks to woo.

Sonnet 24:  “Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife”

Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife,
Shut in upon itself and do no harm
In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm,
And let us hear no sound of human strife
After the click of the shutting. Life to life—
I lean upon thee, Dear, without alarm,
And feel as safe as guarded by a charm
Against the stab of worldlings, who if rife
Are weak to injure. Very whitely still
The lilies of our lives may reassure
Their blossoms from their roots, accessible
Alone to heavenly dews that drop not fewer,
Growing straight, out of man’s reach, on the hill.
God only, who made us rich, can make us poor.

Commentary on Sonnet 24:  “Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife”

The speaker is comparing the negative attitudes of others to a “clasping knife” that she will simply close up to rid her love of destruction.

First Quatrain:  The World’s Intrusion

Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife,
Shut in upon itself and do no harm
In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm,
And let us hear no sound of human strife

The speaker engages the conceit of a “clasping knife” to refer to the “world’s sharpness” that would intrude upon the love between herself and her belovèd.   Like the metaphysical poets who employed such devices, this poet follows their lead at times, engaging strange metaphors and similes to express her comparison.  

But this speaker allows that the world should just close itself up like that “clasping knife” so that its threat will not interfere with the love she feels for her belovèd. 

The speaker begs that no “harm” come to “this close hand of love.” After the knife closes to shut away the sharpness, then there is no danger. She asks for “soft and warm,” without the “sound of human strife.”

Second Quatrain:  Putting Away Sharpness and Danger

After the click of the shutting. Life to life—
I lean upon thee, Dear, without alarm,
And feel as safe as guarded by a charm
Against the stab of worldlings, who if rife

The speaker continues the knife conceit into the second quatrain of the sonnet. After the sharpness and danger are put away, she and her belovèd will exist “without alarm,” and they will be safe.   They will be “guarded by a charm / Against the stab of worldlings.”  The speaker finds obstacles everywhere. 

After overcoming her own inner doubts, she now has to battle the unsympathetic barbs of others.   But by likening the ridicule to a “clasping knife,” the speaker dramatizes her method for overcoming the negativities of other people; she will merely close them off from her consciousness.

First Tercet:  Too Weak to Cause Pain

Are weak to injure. Very whitely still
The lilies of our lives may reassure
Their blossoms from their roots, accessible

The knife conceit has worked well because she is able to admit that the stabs of those worldlings are many yet they “are weak to injure.” She then takes up another conceit which likens the lovers’ relationship to “the lilies of our lives” that “reassure / Their blossoms from their roots.”

The roots of the flower are hidden, but they are strong and sustain the beauty of the blooms. The speaker is dramatizing the love between herself and her belovèd, averring that they possess a strong, hidden core like the flowers.

Second Tercet:  Growing Out of the Reach of Humankind

Alone to heavenly dews that drop not fewer,
Growing straight, out of man’s reach, on the hill.
God only, who made us rich, can make us poor.

And the source of their love is “accessible / Alone to heavenly dews.” Their love “grow[s] straight, out of man’s reach” and resembles flowers growing on a hill.   Their love comes from God, and “only God, who made us rich, can make us poor.”  

The speaker is echoing the marriage vows as she has done before in Sonnet 22: “what God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6).

Sonnet 25:  “A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s speaker revisits her former sorrow to contrast her earlier “heavy heart” with the light heartedness she now enjoys because of her belovèd.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 25:  “A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 25 from Sonnets from the Portuguese dramatizes the transformation of the speaker’s “heavy heart” of misery into a welcoming home of life and love. She credits her belovèd for her ability to transcend her earlier sorrows.

The speaker continues to gain confidence in herself and the possibility that she can be loved by one whose status she deems so far above her own.  She began in utter denial of any such luck, but as the muses, prays, and contemplates the motives and the behavior of her beloved, she becomes more convinced of his genuine affection for her.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s speaker revisits her former sadness and melancholy in order to contrast that earlier “heavy heart” with the light heartedness she now has begun to enjoy because of the genuine feelings she now detects in her belovèd.

Sonnet 25:  “A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne”

A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne
From year to year until I saw thy face,
And sorrow after sorrow took the place
Of all those natural joys as lightly worn
As the stringed pearls, each lifted in its turn
By a beating heart at dance-time. Hopes apace
Were changed to long despairs, till God’s own grace
Could scarcely lift above the world forlorn
My heavy heart. Then thou didst bid me bring
And let it drop adown thy calmly great
Deep being! Fast it sinketh, as a thing
Which its own nature doth precipitate,
While thine doth close above it, mediating
Betwixt the stars and the unaccomplished fate.

Reading of Sonnet 25:  “A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne”

Commentary on Sonnet 25:  “A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne”

The speaker is revisiting her former sorrow to contrast her earlier “heavy heart” with the light heartedness she now enjoys because of her belovèd.

First Quatrain:   A Storehouse of Metaphors for Misery

A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne
From year to year until I saw thy face,
And sorrow after sorrow took the place
Of all those natural joys as lightly worn

The speaker addressing her belovèd recalls that before she “saw [his] face,” she was afflicted with a “heavy heart.” She suffered a long line of sorrows instead of “all those natural joys” that young woman usually experience so easily.

This speaker has so often alluded to her sorrow that the reader is not surprised that it appears again for dramatization. Her storehouse of metaphors that elucidate her misery is large and varied.

Second Quatrain:  Sorrows Like a String of Pearls

As the stringed pearls, each lifted in its turn
By a beating heart at dance-time. Hopes apace
Were changed to long despairs, till God’s own grace
Could scarcely lift above the world forlorn

The speaker compares that long life of “sorrow after sorrow” to a string of pearls and supplies the image of a young woman at a dance, who fingers her pearls as she waits with rapidly “beating heart” to be asked to dance.

The speaker sees herself as a wallflower and as that metaphoric self stood waiting to be chosen, her hopes were dashed and “were changed to long despairs.” She remained alone and lonely until her belovèd mercifully through the grace of God rescued her.

First Tercet:   Love Warm and Soothing

My heavy heart. Then thou didst bid me bring
And let it drop adown thy calmly great
Deep being! Fast it sinketh, as a thing

Inordinately, the speaker was so distressed with her burden of a “heavy heart” that it was difficult even for “God’s own grace” to “lift above the world” that “forlorn” dejected heart. But fortunately her belovèd appeared. He beckoned her, accepted her, and welcomed her to “let it drop adown thy calmly great /deep being!”

The speaker’s gentleman friend’s loving affection was like a warm soothing pool of fresh water into which she could drop her painful “heavy heart” to have it washed clean of its sorrowful burden. Her heavy heart sank quickly to bottom of his welcoming comfort as if it belonged in that very place.

Second Tercet:   Adoring Care

Which its own nature doth precipitate,
While thine doth close above it, mediating
Betwixt the stars and the unaccomplished fate.

The speaker’s emotional self was thus comforted by her belovèd’s adoring care; she felt that she had come home for the first time. His love enclosed her and lifted her to where she could sense her destiny as majestic as a celestial being “mediating / Betwixt the stars and the unaccomplished fate.”

The speaker has offered her belovèd a dramatic celebration of her change of heart and credited him with transforming her “heavy heart” into a light sensory gift that has become conducive of heaven.

Sonnet 26:  “I lived with visions for my company”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s speaker dramatizes the difference between her early fantasy world and the world of reality as now represented by her belovèd.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 26:  “I lived with visions for my company”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 26 from Sonnets from the Portuguese dramatizes the marvelous nature of reality as opposed to the fantasy world of daydreaming.   The speaker has discovered that no matter how wonderfully her own imagination creates, it cannot complete with the reality that God grants.

The speaker’s life had been closed off from the larger world of people and ideas.  As her fantasy dreams began to fade, however, she was fortunate enough to find better dreams that became reality, as her soulmate entered her life.

Sonnet 26:  “I lived with visions for my company”

I lived with visions for my company
Instead of men and women, years ago,
And found them gentle mates, nor thought to know
A sweeter music than they played to me.
But soon their trailing purple was not free
Of this world’s dust, their lutes did silent grow,
And I myself grew faint and blind below
Their vanishing eyes. Then THOU didst come—to be,
Belovèd, what they seemed. Their shining fronts,
Their songs, their splendors (better, yet the same,
As river-water hallowed into fonts),
Met in thee, and from out thee overcame
My soul with satisfaction of all wants:
Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.

Reading of Sonnet 26:  “I lived with visions for my company” 

Commentary on Sonnet 26:  “I lived with visions for my company”

The speaker is dramatizing the difference between her early fantasy world and the world of reality as now represented by her belovèd.

First Quatrain:  Imagination for Company

I lived with visions for my company
Instead of men and women, years ago,
And found them gentle mates, nor thought to know
A sweeter music than they played to me.

The speaker recalls that she once spent her time in the company of “visions,” instead of real, flesh-and-blood people. She is, no doubt, referring to the authors whose works she had read, studied, and translated. 

The speaker found their company very pleasant and did not ever think to desire any other kind of relationship.  Her lack of self-esteem likely rendered her somewhat helpless, making her think that all she deserved was this completely isolated life.

The speaker has many times reported on her isolated life. She lived alone and did not seek a human relationship; in her personal sadness, she suffered, but she also assuaged that sadness with literature, enjoying the association of the thoughts and ideas of those literary giants.

Second Quatrain:  Perfection Showing Its Flaws

But soon their trailing purple was not free
Of this world’s dust, their lutes did silent grow,
And I myself grew faint and blind below
Their vanishing eyes. Then THOU didst come—to be,

At first, the speaker thought that such company would sustain her in perpetuity, but she ultimately found that their supposed perfections began to show their flaws: “their trailing purple was not free / Of this world’s dust, their lutes did silent grow.”

The utter royalty of the kings and queens of letters started to fade, and their music started to fall on ears grown too satisfied and jaded to continue enjoying those works. She even found herself becoming diminished as she lost interest in that earlier company.

First Tercet:  The Belovèd Enters

Belovèd, what they seemed. Their shining fronts,
Their songs, their splendors (better, yet the same,
As river-water hallowed into fonts),

Fortunately for the speaker, her belovèd entered her life, and he became the reality that showed the less glorious fantasy behind what she had earlier constructed.   The imagined relationships with the authors of literary works faded as the reality of a flesh-and-blood poet filled her life.

The beauty and glimmering presence of magical literary friends flowed through the speaker’s life as “river water hallowed into fonts.” She had modeled her life on the ephemeral glory of thoughts and ideas as they appeared in poems and art.

Second Tercet:  Metaphysical Beauty and Reality

Met in thee, and from out thee overcame
My soul with satisfaction of all wants:
Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.

All of the metaphysical beauty coupled itself with the thoughts and dreams of a poet and combined, rolling itself into the reality of her belovèd.  

His love for her came to represent everything she had ever wanted; he filled “[her] soul with satisfaction of all wants.” When he came into her life, he brought fruition of her earlier dreams and fantasies.

Despite the stunning dreams that she had allowed to soothe her suffering soul earlier in her life, she can now aver, “God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.” Again, she acknowledges that her belovèd is a gift from God.

Sonnet 27:  “My own Belovèd, who hast lifted me”

The speaker in sonnet 27 alludes to the Greek mythological Asphodel Meadows to dramatize her life’s transformation after meeting her belovèd.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 27:  “My own Belovèd, who hast lifted me”

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 27 from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker again dramatizes the contrast between how her life was before she met her belovèd and how it is now that she has found the love of her life. 

In this sonnet, the speaker employs an allusion to the Greek mythological “Asphodel Meadows” in order to dramatize the transformation her life has undergone after meeting and growing close to her belovèd.

The speaker asserts the comparison between her life after meeting her belovèd to her former miserable state of being in order to establish herself firmly in the relationship, which she had earlier attempted to deny.

Sonnet 27:  “My own Belovèd, who hast lifted me”

My own Belovèd, who hast lifted me
From this drear flat of earth where I was thrown,
And, in betwixt the languid ringlets, blown
A life-breath, till the forehead hopefully
Shines out again, as all the angels see,
Before thy saving kiss! My own, my own,
Who camest to me when the world was gone,
And I who looked for only God, found thee!
I find thee; I am safe, and strong, and glad.
As one who stands in dewless asphodel,
Looks backward on the tedious time he had
In the upper life,—so I, with bosom-swell,
Make witness, here, between the good and bad,
That Love, as strong as Death, retrieves as well.

Reading of Sonnet 27:  “My own Belovèd, who hast lifted me”

Commentary on Sonnet 27:  “My own Belovèd, who hast lifted me”

The speaker in sonnet 27 is alluding to the Greek mythological Asphodel Meadows to dramatize her life’s transformation after meeting her belovèd.

First Quatrain:  A Cruel Life

My own Belovèd, who hast lifted me
From this drear flat of earth where I was thrown,
And, in betwixt the languid ringlets, blown
A life-breath, till the forehead hopefully

The speaker begins by addressing her belovèd directly, telling him again about how he came to her at her lowest point of depression.  Her belovèd has raised the speaker from the depths of utter despair which she now describes as “this drear flat of earth where I was thrown.” 

The speaker’s life has been so cruel to her that she felt that she was not only sinking but was also violently “thrown” to her lowest level. Even the speaker’s hair had become limp and lifeless as her “languid ringlets” attested, until her lover had “blown / A life-breath” and her forehead would finally come alive with brightness.

Second Quatrain:  An Infusion of Hope

Shines out again, as all the angels see,
Before thy saving kiss! My own, my own,
Who camest to me when the world was gone,
And I who looked for only God, found thee!

After the speaker’s beloved had lovingly kissed her pale forehead, she then became infused with the hope that she would brighten, “as all the angels see.”  

The speaker then exclaims and repeats, “My own, my own”; he is now her own belovèd who has entered her life at a time when there seemed to be nothing in the world for which she could go on living.

This sonnet, unfortunately, sounds a bit as if the speaker has chosen her human lover over God. The speaker reports that she sought “only God,” before her belovèd’s arrival, but then unexpectedly she “found thee!”   

However, in earlier sonnets, this speaker has made it clear that she is thankful to God for sending her belovèd and that God knows what is appropriate for His children.

First Tercet:   Celebration of Love

I find thee; I am safe, and strong, and glad.
As one who stands in dewless asphodel,
Looks backward on the tedious time he had

The speaker continues to celebrate finding her human lover, as she reports the uplifting feelings she now experiences: “I am safe, and strong, and glad.”  The speaker then employs the allusion to the Greek mythological positioning of souls in the afterlife, stating, “As one who stands in dewless asphodel.” 

The “Asphodel Meadows” are located between heaven and hell, and she thus likens herself to an individual positioned between the ultimate good and ultimate bad.   As the speaker “looks backward” to her old life, she deems that time “tedious” compared to how she feels now.

Second Tercet:  The Superior Action of Love 

In the upper life,—so I, with bosom-swell,
Make witness, here, between the good and bad,
That Love, as strong as Death, retrieves as well.

The speaker now sees herself as one testifying that while “Death” ushers a soul to a different level of being, she has discovered that “Love” does so as well.   And the speaker’s reaction with a “bosom-swell” demonstrates that she is witness to the superior action of love.

. . .

More commentaries are forthcoming.

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