The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

Although the speaker in the poem is not identified as a woman, the poem reads better if one assumes that a woman is speaking. The conflict expressed in the opening two lines gains power if the speaker is seen as a woman fighting for her independence from a man, as well as a lover struggling to be free of her lover’s dominating influence. It also helps to remember that in the background are two real-life lovers: An invalid (Elizabeth Barrett) is writing a series of sonnets to a lover (Robert Browning) whom her tyrannical father has forbidden her to see. This much biographical information, if not essential to an understanding of the poem, greatly enhances one’s appreciation of it and makes the beginning of the sonnet clearer and the poet’s conflict more poignant.

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The poem opens abruptly with a command—“Go from me”—followed by a seeming retraction (“Yet I feel”) that introduces the poet’s conflict. She appears not to want her lover to go, but he must, for reasons left unexplained. The peremptory nature of the command makes his leaving seem imperative and the fact of his going final. His going will give her strength to “stand”—or will she rise because she is alarmed by his leaving, as if to stop him? The second line takes back the suggestion in the first line that his leaving will make her somehow strong and independent—when he is gone, she will live in his shadow.

Continuing into line 3 and further, the poet reveals an even closer bond between herself and her lover: She will never again direct the “uses” of her soul without an awareness of him. His influence will be felt as far within her own being as she herself can go. Inwardly in this way and outwardly (“nor lift my handin the sunshine”), she will always have a “sense” of his intimate presence, evident in a “touch upon the palm.” Broadening her vision to include the great distance “Doom” places between them, she asserts that even then they will share the same heart. In line 10 she returns to her own inner and outer life, saying that both her actions and her dreams will include him. The two lovers will be as indistinguishable as the taste of the wine is from that of the grapes (lines 10-12). Finally, when the poet seeks God’s assistance for herself, the lover’s name is heard, and God sees in the poet’s eyes the tears of both lovers. Her poem begins with an imperative, the necessary parting of two lovers; it then explains the extent to which their lives shall henceforth be intertwined, touching on the serenity of their union. It ends on an expression of grief mingled with a sublime sense that their union shall be seen by God himself.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

The poem employs the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet, rhyming abba, abba, cdc, cdc, and uses the conventional iambic pentameter line, varying the placement of the stresses in some of the lines. Line 1, for example, begins on a stressed syllable (“Go”) instead of an unstressed syllable, as the regular lines do. Instead of pausing where the rhyme pattern marks a quatrain, octave, or tercet, as in the Petrarchan sonnet structure, Barrett Browning pauses within the lines. The first heavy pause occurs not half way into line 1 (after “me”). The argument continues without a heavy pause to the end of line 7 (“forbore—”), and comes to an end-stop just after the midpoint in line 8 (“palm.”). Another end-stop occurs after “double” (line 10) and another after “grapes” (line 12). The effect of this patterning is to draw attention subtly away from the conventional rhyme pattern and pauses. By continuing her thought through the conventional pause points, she erases the seams of the sonnet structure in favor of the continuity of thought.

In line 1, enjambment—running the meaning from one line to the next around the line end—is used to reinforce thought. The reader comes to “stand,” turns to line 2, and reads “Henceforward,” reinforcing the image conveyed by “stand.” In line 2, the poet’s forceful response to her lover’s departure is heavily qualified by “in thy shadow,” which seems to reduce the poet to her lover’s influence (“shadow”). The pause is followed immediately by “Nevermore,” which is stressed twice (on “Never” and on “more”) and is further emphasized by being placed at the end of the line. “Henceforward,” at the beginning of line 2, is subtly contradicted by “Nevermore” at the end of the line.

In line 3, enjambment makes “Nevermore/ Alone” read almost like a single phrase, “Nevermore Alone,” but because a slight pause occurs at the end of every line, the two words are actually read as two separate words, both individually qualifying Barrett Browning’s assertion that she shall “Henceforward” be in her lover’s shadow. The poet’s conflict is thus emphasized by punctuation, placement, and metric peculiarities.

This way of proceeding, first suggesting an independent and solitary existence without her lover, then qualifying it with expressions of dependence and helplessness, comes to a major turning point in lines 7 and 8, which conclude just short of the sonnet’s conventional octave. These two lines serve as a fulcrum in the poet’s argument, giving the sonnet a balance dictated by the poet’s feelings and ideas rather than by convention. Significantly, from line 8 to the end of the poem, the tone shifts from an inner conflict to self-confidence, culminating in line 12, where the poet declares an intention to “sue/ God for myself.” At the same time, the yes-and-no conflict that characterizes the first eight lines subsides.

The imagery of the poem also reflects the poet’s conflict. Images of strength are qualified by images that seem at first to weaken them but actually strengthen them. In line 1, “stand” suggests strength and independence, but it is qualified by “shadow,” which suggests dependence. Addressing the “door” of her “individual life,” the poet goes no further than the “threshold,” suggesting hesitancy. Capable of action, she lifts her “hand,” which might suggest an image of a feeble gesture were it not for “Serenely” (line 6) immediately following, which evokes the image of spiritual strength and grace. Even the tears in the final line suggest both grief and joy simultaneously.

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Themes