What are the literary tools and tone used in "Sonnet 43" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

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amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Sonnet 43," the phrase "I love thee" is repeated nine times in the poem. This is called anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase. This is often used in poetry but also in political rhetoric with phrases such as, "I believe in an America that . . ." Such a device in political speaking is to emphasize the speaker's love and loyalty to America. The effect of the repetition in the poem is to emphasize how much the speaker is in love. Therefore, the tone of this poem is uplifting and illustrates indescribably happiness and love.

The imagery the speaker compares her love to is abstract and therefore difficult to quantify. The effect is that her love is so great that it defies description or comparison with ordinary, worldly things. In lines 2-4, her love is as deep as the soul can reach; as far as the ends of the world (Being) and even as far as God ("ideal Grace"). This is a love that is Earthly but at the level of the spiritual. Those lines are tempered with the next in which she loves him (Robert Barrett Browning) at every single moment, no matter how trivial, of the day and night ("by sun and candle-light").

In lines 6-7, she uses similes (comparisons using "like" or "as"):

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

Here she compares her love to other virtuous behaviors. Again, these are not concrete images or things. They are abstract feelings and beliefs. She loves as much as free men strive for justice and as much as pure men do not need praise. So, this is a love that is virtuous and not proud. In the following lines, the speaker loves him as much as the passion she's given to all the grief in her life and she loves as much as she was trusting when she was an innocent, dependent child.

In the final lines, she loves so much that her faith of love in life and death is renewed. Thus, her love of God is also renewed. The Earthly and Spiritual are united here. Stylistically, life and death/afterlife are linked with the rhyme of lines 12 and 14: breath and death. Usually, rhyme is described as a formal or aesthetic device but it often, and this is one such case, is used thematically to link ideas.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Browning employs the form of an Italian sonnet: a lyric poem of fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter.  Typically the first eight lines present a problem, and the last six lines grant the solution; alternatively, the first eight lines might describe a situation, and the last six lines might provide some truth about it; in other situations, the first eight lines might even use one central metaphor, while the last six use another.  In Barrett's poem, however, there is not a significant break in topic between the first eight lines and the last six; the speaker continues with her list of all the ways in which she loves the person she addresses.  This continuation has the effect of making the emotion sort of snowball; it increases our sense of just how very much and how deeply she does love.

Browning employs a spatial metaphor in lines 2–4, describing the speaker's love as something that can take up literal, physical space, "to depth and breadth and height / [Her] soul can reach."  Because love is not something that can take up actual space, we understand there is something figurative going on here.

Browning also employs assonance in lines 3 and 4 with the repetition of the long "e" sound in reach, feeling, being, and ideal.  The repetition of long vowel sounds adds a more musical quality to the lines. Because these sounds take longer to say, they have the effect of slowing down the pace of these lines, giving their meaning even more impact (even adding to the tone of reverence that I describe in the next paragraph).  

Often, teachers will discourage students from identifying the speaker of the poem as the author because such an assumption can lead us away from what the poem is actually conveying and into the author's biography.  In this case, Browning seems to present the relationship of the speaker with a deep reverence for the love the speaker feels; with this tone, she seems to respect and even honor the way such a love can feel to the lover.