Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

There are several levels of meaning in the first of the Sonnets from the Portuguese. First, the conflict that was settled with the writing of this sonnet is that between death and life. The sad, hopeless existence of the poet, a kind of death that evidently made her willing to submit to actual physical death, was defeated when she was happily conquered by love.

A second theme is that of time. If one is happy, the human power of recollecting and anticipating produces a triple pleasure; while enjoying the present, one recalls past happiness and looks for more happiness in the future. For the poet, however, both past and present are unhappy, and therefore the future can only be dreaded. This theme fuses with the first, for with such expectations, most people would indeed welcome death, as the poet seems to do.

A third theme is suggested in this important introductory sonnet, a theme that will be further developed as the sequence continues. This is the issue of sovereignty, implied in the forceful posture of personified Love and stated explicitly with the words “in mastery.” It might appear that in the final lines, the figure that seizes the poet is in fact Robert Browning, capturing his beloved in the time-tested masculine fashion. Certainly Robert would never literally have seized the delicate Elizabeth by the hair, but the lines could be interpreted as implying that he imposed his will upon hers.

Such an interpretation would not be consistent with what is known about the relationship between the two poets. It was Elizabeth Barrett’s poetry that first interested Robert Browning in her, and throughout their courtship and their marriage, both poets continued to work on their writing, encouraging each other in a very modern kind of partnership. As the critic Helen Cooper points out, the allusion in these lines is to the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.), where the goddess Athena pulls back Achilles, holding him by the hair so that he will not get into a fight. Certainly in Barrett Browning’s poem, it is a divinity, not a human being, that has intervened in her life. The happy result, indicated by the description of the divinity’s reply as “silver,” is made clear in the rest of this sequence of love poems.