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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 fleeting, like a dove, the final image of the poem.

Another theme in this poem is the nature of the relationship between man and woman, and it reflects the traditional view of the protecting nature of a man over his lover. The woman wants to have an emotionally equal relationship. She states this in the first two lines of the poem, but something intercedes. She begins to feel that she may have overstepped—that she is to blame. On the one hand, one may take this to mean that she recognizes her vulnerability. On the other, through a more feminist approach, one may see that she feels imprisoned by her past and believes that she has no alternative but to give herself over to her man. Readers will have to draw their own conclusions.

Nevertheless, the poet desires her lover to take her, baggage and all, and she is willing to give “all for thee” without hearing whether he will reciprocate. What the reader sees, then, is a poet in the throes of turmoil, in a poem that enacts the nature of that turmoil.