The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628

Sonnet 35, also known by its first six words, “If I leave all for thee,” is written in rhymed iambic pentameter lines. The poem, written in the first person, is spoken not to the reader but to the poet’s lover. The experience is universal: One lover addresses another. The energy of that address is also universal; it is fevered and intense. The reader watches, as an audience might watch a drama unfold. The sonnet is soliloquy-like, a monologue set apart from the action of stage and drama surrounding it.

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The poem begins with the speaker, a woman, asking her lover whether he will make an equal “exchange.” The items include nothing less than “all” of her love for all of his. There is a sense of extremes in this opening moment, and the reader senses a tone of desperation on the speaker’s part. Something is awry. Her lover seems distant somehow, or she has lost something. The reader cannot be sure. Next she asks herself whether she would “miss” the quotidian of her life, whether the daily, temporal, and basically general talk, the “common” kiss, would be missed. She asks whether her lover could “fill that place” that she would have to give up for him.

The speaker has apparently lost something or someone, and she is deeply concerned about whether her lover can fill the absence. The poet is in grief, she says plainly: “I have grieved so I am hard to love.” In this poem, unlike others in the Sonnets from the Portuguese sonnet sequence, the poet is preoccupied by something as earthly as death. Still, she wants the man to love her despite her grief. She asks him to open his heart to her, to provide his love for her (in exchange for her love for him) while she is mourning the loss she has suffered. In the final line, she compares herself to a dove who needs another to enfold her, to bring peace of mind to her.

In the summary of this sonnet, one sees that the poet is vulnerable and that the man, her lover, is beseeched to aid her, to bring her back into a less grieving state of mind. Knowing that to leave “all” for her lover is to be vulnerable, she began the poem by asking if he would do the same for her. At the end, she asks for him to take her anyway, so the question at the beginning becomes rhetorical.

It is almost impossible not to think of the courtship of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning when reading the Sonnets from the Portuguese. The two poets met in 1845 and were married in September, 1846. Although they had fallen passionately in love, Barrett knew that if she were to marry Browning, her father would be upset, even furious (he suspected Robert Browning of planning to live on her money). The idea of leaving “all” for love was, therefore, a very real prospect. Indeed, her father did disinherit her. The Brownings traveled to Italy, and Elizabeth never saw her father again.

The grief she describes in the sonnet may also refer to (or at least have been inspired by) a particular event in her life. Her brother Edward had died in a boating accident for which she felt partially responsible. Barrett had gone to the English resort town of Torquay, in 1838, hoping that the climate would give some relief for the persistent cough she was suffering. Her brother visited her there but planned to return to London; she persuaded him to stay. When he drowned in the summer of 1840, she was overwhelmed by feelings of grief and guilt. One cannot help but wonder whether the sonnet’s “dead eyes too tender to know change” were those of Edward.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 321

The traditional sonnet structure is often called an argument. One often sees two or three variations or aspects of the argument, then a turn to a conclusion. For example, an unrequited love poem might run something like the following: Your eyes are dark as a river, your teeth are shiny as stones, your smile is like a waterfall; but you left me and I am drowning in the current of pain you have made. Three points are followed by a turn in emotion and direction.

Sonnet 35 presents an unusual argument. In fact, it is less an argument than an emotional imploring. The form follows the form described above, generally, but with these important differences. First, the poet addresses not only her lover but also herself. The effect of this device is to emphasize the indecisiveness the poet is experiencing. She wants to trade all of her love for all of her lover’s love, but she is not so sure of her own end of the bargain. Second, she seems not entirely sure that her lover can fulfill his side of the bargain: “wilt thou fill that place. . . .?” The indecision increases; by line 8, the argument is plagued by doubt. What might have appeared to be a series of rock-solid points are thrown into disarray; emotion is overtaking reason.

Third, Barrett Browning introduces her own preoccupation: grief. These lines appear to be the most interesting, most startling, and most memorable of the poem. She reveals that because she herself has grieved, she is “hard to love.” She recognizes that it is harder, perhaps, for him to exchange all of his love for her, since her love is more complex. Yet, she pleads, “love me—wilt thou?” Here is the turn in the emotional argument, if one can call it an argument. She seems to capitulate to him, saying that she will give all of her love regardless of what he may do.

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