The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sonnet 35, also known by its first six words, “If I leave all for thee,” is written in rhymed iambic pentameter lines. The poem, written in the first person, is spoken not to the reader but to the poet’s lover. The experience is universal: One lover addresses another. The energy of that address is also universal; it is fevered and intense. The reader watches, as an audience might watch a drama unfold. The sonnet is soliloquy-like, a monologue set apart from the action of stage and drama surrounding it.

The poem begins with the speaker, a woman, asking her lover whether he will make an equal “exchange.” The items include nothing less than “all” of her love for all of his. There is a sense of extremes in this opening moment, and the reader senses a tone of desperation on the speaker’s part. Something is awry. Her lover seems distant somehow, or she has lost something. The reader cannot be sure. Next she asks herself whether she would “miss” the quotidian of her life, whether the daily, temporal, and basically general talk, the “common” kiss, would be missed. She asks whether her lover could “fill that place” that she would have to give up for him.

The speaker has apparently lost something or someone, and she is deeply concerned about whether her lover can fill the absence. The poet is in grief, she says plainly: “I have grieved so I am hard to love.” In this poem, unlike others in the Sonnets from the Portuguese sonnet sequence, the poet is preoccupied by something as...

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Sonnet 35 Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The traditional sonnet structure is often called an argument. One often sees two or three variations or aspects of the argument, then a turn to a conclusion. For example, an unrequited love poem might run something like the following: Your eyes are dark as a river, your teeth are shiny as stones, your smile is like a waterfall; but you left me and I am drowning in the current of pain you have made. Three points are followed by a turn in emotion and direction.

Sonnet 35 presents an unusual argument. In fact, it is less an argument than an emotional imploring. The form follows the form described above, generally, but with these important differences. First, the poet addresses not only her lover but also herself. The effect of this device is to emphasize the indecisiveness the poet is experiencing. She wants to trade all of her love for all of her lover’s love, but she is not so sure of her own end of the bargain. Second, she seems not entirely sure that her lover can fulfill his side of the bargain: “wilt thou fill that place. . . .?” The indecision increases; by line 8, the argument is plagued by doubt. What might have appeared to be a series of rock-solid points are thrown into disarray; emotion is overtaking reason.

Third, Barrett Browning introduces her own preoccupation: grief. These lines appear to be the most interesting, most startling, and most memorable of the poem. She reveals that because she herself has grieved, she is “hard to love.” She recognizes that it is harder, perhaps, for him to exchange all of his love for her, since her love is more complex. Yet, she pleads, “love me—wilt thou?” Here is the turn in the emotional argument, if one can call it an argument. She seems to capitulate to him, saying that she will give all of her love regardless of what he may do.