Sonnets from the Portuguese

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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What do Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese tell about human connection?

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In order to best answer this question, I am choosing to examine three distinct poems from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s volume Sonnets from the Portuguese: sonnets 14, 28, and 43.

In Sonnet 14, the speaker lists several ways in which she does not want her “Beloved” to love her. She doesn’t want a shallow, mercurial love based on physical attraction or pity, but rather an everlasting one: “Thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity.” This poem implies that achieving a lasting connection with another person is no easy task and that many fail to do so because they don’t know how to love properly.

Sonnet 28 represents a less didactic version of love in favor of a passionate one. The speaker is reading love letters by candlelight, expressing how dead their words are to her heart. This indicates that the speaker is separated from her lover and feels connected to him through his writings. One letter includes the lover’s desire to “come and touch [her] hand,” “a simple thing” that she cries over. This outpouring of passion over a simple physical gesture shows that the speaker cherishes the connection with her lover so much that just thinking about it makes her emotional.

Of course, Sonnet 43 is the most famous from Barrett’s collection. The poem memorializes the ideal love the speaker shares with her lover: “I love thee with the breath / Smiles, tears of all my life!” The exclamatory tone of the poem underscores the speaker’s enthusiasm, but the aphoristic musings within the lines depersonalizes the love affair about which she writes. Human connection in this sonnet is the purest form of devotion, and the speaker suggests that it continues after death.

Overall, Browning’s poetry in this volume explains the importance of human connection in vitalizing one’s soul. The speaker in each of the sonnets above presents a multidimensional understanding of romantic relationships. Besides fulfilling a social or sexual need, relationships provide an almost spiritual satisfaction that adds meaning to one’s life.

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