Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as the speaker of this poem, is troubled, and her indecision and her “grief” are the paths down which one might look to discover some of the meanings of the sonnet. She appears to be asking her lover not only to conquer love—hers and his—but also to conquer her grief, because she cannot rid herself of a sorrow. For her to have feelings of both grief—which is “love and grief beside”—and love is to complicate the emotion her lover may have for her: Does he want to try to win her love, which is complicated by the utmost sorrow in human emotion? Although she hopes that they might “exchange,” she realizes that the deal is loaded and that she represents the worse end of the deal.

Thus, a theme of the sonnet is the complexity of human emotion. When one enters into a love relationship, one brings into it all of one’s past experiences (all of one’s baggage, as the saying goes) and one deposits them on the doorstep of the new lover. Even if one does not consciously bring the baggage to bear, it follows. One can never escape one’s past—or, in the case of Sonnet 35, one’s grief. The lover, if he or she chooses, may search through these bags for old bones and ghosts—and may find some. A lover may reveal what is inside and then ask: Can you love me anyway? Can you open your “heart wide”? One’s past emotions become complicated in new ones; one begins to experience oneself and one’s life as small and...

(The entire section is 458 words.)