The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 373

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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes in a fairly simple, straightforward style. Yet the simplicity is as deceptive as that of the American poets Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost; through the skillful use of various poetic devices, Barrett Browning achieves her artistic purposes.

One of these devices, which is important in this first sonnet of the sequence, is that of repetition, which can be used to emphasize and to amplify physical or psychological description. In this sonnet, for example, “the sweet years” of which Theocritus wrote are further defined in the parenthetical phrase that follows, “the dear and wished-for years.” By repeating the word “years” and altering the adjectives, that second phrase not only emphasizes the delight Theocritus found in life but also adds further meaning: Instead of merely bringing momentary pleasure, every period in the present creates the expectation of future pleasure.

That amplification is even more important as the octave proceeds into the description of the poet’s own contrasting view of life. The seventh line closely parallels the second in form; it also begins with “sweet,” as applied to years. In this case, however, “sweet” is united with “sad”; the implication is that the years were filled with disappointments and losses, with frustrated yearnings for a joy which could only be imagined, indeed, with the kinds of emotions the poet herself experienced after the deaths of her brothers and after her own seemingly permanent confinement to her couch and her bed. The simple combination of “sweet” and “sad” thus has an important effect. Still paralleling the second line, the seventh proceeds to a phrase that further explains the poet’s viewpoint, “the melancholy years.” Although there is no explicit statement as to the future, no “dreaded years” to match the earlier “wished-for years,” the principle established in the first quatrain must still apply in the second. The nature of the present suggests the shape of the future, and if each year in the future is to be as unhappy as each year in the present, there is certainly nothing to look forward to, nothing to wish for. In the octave the contrast between the two viewpoints has been stressed both by repetition within each of these lines and by the similarity between the lines.

At the end of the octave, Barrett Browning uses repetition to establish her own hopelessness and to prepare for the unexpectedness of the event which she describes in the sestet. This segment of the poem is dominated by another poetic device, personification, a device already used effectively in the octave. The years are personified in the octave, probably as some kind of Greek supernatural beings. They have presents in their hands, at least for Theocritus. The personification continues into the description of the poet’s life. Each of her years has cast “a shadow” on her; since only a substantial being can produce a shadow, once again the poet is personifying an abstraction.

While personification is important as ornamentation in the octave, it is crucial in the sestet. Although they were inexorable, the years had not used physical compulsion but had operated at some distance; however, Love is personified as something forceful and compelling. The spirit materializes, pulls the poet by the hair, questions her, and identifies itself. The voice speaks “in mastery”; there can be no argument with Love, only acquiescence. The joy that came from acquiescence will be described in the sonnets that follow.

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Themes