Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Sonnets from the Portuguese is Barrett Browning’s most enduring and popular poem, although it has been undervalued by critics. The sequence of sonnets was new and experimental when it was written. It adopted a poetic form and subject matter reserved for the expression of male amatory experience and depicted modern life and domestic events in a traditionally high literary form used to express the pursuit of ideal love and the poet’s failure to translate it into the actual world. Instead, Barrett Browning replaced the male poetic voice with her own and related the feelings that she experienced during Robert Browning’s courtship. The sonnets bring together the voice of a woman and the voice of the poet and make them one. They not only relate a courtship between a man and a woman but also relate the transformation of a woman into a poet. They authorize the woman to be a poet and ponder the problem of being both the object and the subject of love and poetic thought.
For a full understanding of the poems, it must be remembered that they are a sequence that forms a complete work describing a process that ends with achieved love and realized poetic power. Helen Cooper, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Woman and Artist (1988), divides the poems into three groups: woman seen as the object of a man’s desire and love (Sonnets 1 and 2), the woman struggling to free herself from being objectified and maintaining her own subjectivity (Sonnets 3...
(The entire section is 522 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Whenever English love poetry is discussed, almost invariably the opening of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s penultimate poem of Sonnets from the Portuguese is quoted: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” The collection represents, variously, depending on the quoter’s prejudice, a gem of lyrical eloquence, an oversentimental extravagance, or a tired cliché. Browning’s masterpiece, Sonnets from the Portuguese, went through a complete cycle of literary reception, first being overpraised as “the noblest [sonnets] ever written,” then undervalued as overly emotional effusions, and eventually accepted as a major work. Despite minor cavils, Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese is assured a permanent reputation as one of the foremost collections of love poetry in the English language.
The recurring criticism of sentimentalism has some validity, but the charge may be met on several grounds. Elizabeth Barrett wrote Sonnets from the Portuguese during her passionate courtship with Robert Browning. They record the emotions of that time, and emotions are not always “recollected in tranquility” as William Wordsworth suggested poetry should be. Moreover, the poet never intended them for publication. Then, too, she was writing in a culture whose strictures against poetic display of emotion were less narrow than those of later times; indeed, compared to the other popular love lyrics of her time, Sonnets...
(The entire section is 1642 words.)