Although Elizabeth Barrett Browning called her famous sonnet sequence Sonnets from the Portuguese, in order to suggest that the poems were translations, in actuality she wrote them all herself. The forty-four poems describe the development of the love between Elizabeth Barrett, an invalid almost forty years of age, and the vital, energetic poet Robert Browning, who was six years younger than she. Written during their courtship, the collection was not published until after Elizabeth and Robert had eloped, been married, and had a son.
All the Sonnets from the Portuguese are written in the form of a conventional Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet—that is, a fourteen-line iambic pentameter poem with a prescribed rhyme scheme. Italian sonnets fall into two parts, an eight-line octave followed by a six-line sestet. This first sonnet varies from the pattern only slightly: The octave has been slightly expanded to eight and one-half lines, while the sestet, necessarily, is only five and one-half. The differentiation between octave and sestet is important, because generally in an Italian sonnet the movement to the second part of the poem is marked by a distinct shift or development in thought.
In this poem, the octave itself is based on a contrast. At one time, the poet says, she had thought about the way in which the Greek poet Theocritus had described life. To him, each year was precious, with its own gift; however, at the time when she was musing about Theocritus, the poet herself saw life very differently. To her, it was uniformly sad. Her years had been dark, not bright, and the recollection of them brought her only tears.
At that point, the poet recalls, she became aware of a presence behind her. This spirit seized her by the hair, taking control of her. In accordance with her melancholy view of life, she thought that it was Death which had come for her. To her amazement, however, the spirit identified itself as Love.
Thus the poem concludes with the word which states the theme of the entire sonnet sequence. It is the love of Robert Browning for her, and her love for him, which is to transform Elizabeth Barrett’s life, which is to make her sing as rhapsodically as Theocritus.