Sonnets from the Portuguese

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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What is the plot of the poems of Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Moulton?

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Although it does not have a plot in the sense of a novel or a play, there is a narrative arc to Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of forty-four sonnets written by the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Sonnets originated during Barrett Browning's courtship with her husband, Robert Browning, from its first stirrings to their eventual marriage. The Sonnets were so personal that Barrett Browning initially did not want to publish them, but she was eventually persuaded to by her husband. The title Sonnets From the Portuguese reflects a conceit, or literary device, that she deployed pretending she had translated the sonnets and not written them.

Barrett Browning's personal background therefore informs these deeply personal poems. She grew up an invalid, in the house of her wealthy father. Her family wealth was from Jamaica, and Barrett Browning believed that she had some African ancestry. Her father was extremely opposed to any of his children marrying, which she believed was due to a fear that they would pass on non-white heritage to their children. Despite this, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning courted in secret, eloped, and married.

Due to Barrett Browning's status as a female invalid with a father opposed to her marriage, she did not believe that she would ever marry. When her courtship with Browning began writing to each other it was as friends, and Barrett Browning did not believe it could lead to romance. Her poems reflect the growing intimacy she and Browning developed, as well as her struggle to come to terms with the changes between the future she had initially envisaged as a single invalid. The penultimate sonnet of the cycle, Sonnet 43, is one of the most famous and describes the intense union of souls the author and her love have developed, with a bond that will outlive death.

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