Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

It may not be too farfetched to suggest that the poem’s meaning includes a trip from the “brink of obvious death” to the brink of heaven, a trip more than hinted at in the final lines, with their “lute and song” and “singing angels.” A change indeed has taken place, physically (the poet was apparently at death’s door), emotionally (the entire sonnet, while acknowledging the grimmer aspects of existence, seems to want to leave those thoughts and celebrate the poet’s recovery and rapturous new state), and spiritually. Though a physical recovery is suggested, the poem deals with events occurring in the soul or suggests the spiritual realm: the “outer brink,” “love,” “the whole of life in a new rhythm,” “cup of dole,” and so on. This dualism is clearly evident in line 10, where “country, heaven” are juxtaposed to suggest their interchangeability, at least in the poet’s mind.

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The poet’s confidence with regard to her own physical and mental state seems to increase from the first line to the last. The focus certainly shifts from “The face of all the world” to a spiritual realm filled with angelic singing. Between those two realms, the poet declares that her love has taught her a “new rhythm” and a new way of hearing the music “loved yesterday.” The poem develops an argument that mounts from earth to heaven, reflecting the poet’s own rise from the brink of death to a place where she views “heaven” and hears the notes of an angelic song. Between these two realms—and on the way from the one to the other—the poet would drink. Her sonnet balances on that point midway between her start and her destination. At the center of the poem, the principal elements of the poet’s vision blend metaphorically: Sorrow (“cup of dole”) is turned by love into “sweetness.” The drink, the act of drinking, and the sweetness that is discovered are all metaphorical embodiments that express the poet’s spiritual salvation.

Appropriately, Barrett Browning follows her libation with song, as the second half of the poem indicates. Elevation of spirit is reflected in a shift not only from the physical to the heavenly realm but also in the meaning of “Move” (line 3) and “moves” (line 14). In the first reference, the lover is simply walking, “oh, still, beside me,” stealing as he goes along. In the last line, however, the lover is moving in time with the “lute and songloved yesterday.” Deftly the poet has told her reader that love has saved her life and lifted her spirit into the heavenly realm; at the same time, it has made her lover’s name musical as it “moves right in what they say.” She has been caught up not only into love but into its music as well, a music that runs through all life.

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