The Poem

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Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s audience probably understood the author of her sonnets to be a woman and probably read them as an expression of love from a woman to a man. It is known that before Elizabeth Barrett met her future husband, her health was very delicate and that it improved after their marriage. This much biographical information is useful, for it heightens the experience of the poem, especially since the sonnet deals with the poet herself nearly having died; knowing that two real-life lovers stand behind the poem increases its emotional impact.

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The poem opens with the poet declaring that she sees the world differently since she “heard the footsteps” of her lover’s “soul” beside her. Adding “I think” (line 1) to this declaration, however, suggests uncertainty as to the world-encompassing nature of the change. Her lover’s footsteps moved between her and death (lines 3-7). She implies that her lover somehow saved her from “obvious death” and, in addition, taught her “the whole/ Of life in a new rhythm” (lines 6-7). Her recovery has given her new life and enough spirit to be glad (“fain”) to drink the cup of sorrow or destiny (“dole”), which God “gave for baptism.” She would even praise its sweetness, she says, addressing her lover, with him nearby.

The first six-and-a-half lines of the poem explain Barrett Browning’s recovery from near death, a recovery of both life and spirit, because her lover brought love into her life. In line 7, the poet shifts from the past to the present—now she is ready to face life with him. The last five lines of the poem look around and ahead, explaining that further changes have followed from this revelation: “The names of country, heaven” are now changed. By implication, heaven is where her lover is or will be, “there or here.” The “lute and song” the poet hears and “loved yesterday” are now valued only because her lover’s name is in harmony with them.

Though addressed directly in line 9 (“Sweet”), the lover remains little more than a hidden reference, “footsteps” in line 2 and a “name” in the last line. Nevertheless, his presence has profoundly transformed her life—“all the world” and “the whole of life” have been affected by him, as well as her outlook and spirit, even her musical preferences. Still, he remains a shadowy figure, one who provided or inspired the “love” (line 6) that snatched the poet from the brink of death and taught her a new vision of life. The purpose of the poem, it seems, is to acknowledge the lover’s influence and to indicate its extent, which has saved her life and changed the way she sees the world and “life.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

The poem follows the structure of the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet by rhyming abba, abba, cdc, cdc, and it uses the conventional iambic pentameter line, varying the placement of the stresses in lines 6 through 8 and again in line 10. More important, Barrett Browning does not follow the conventional pattern of pauses—at the end of the first and second quatrains, for example (to establish the octave). Nor does the poem use pauses to divide the last six lines into the conventional set of two tercets. Instead, the pauses occur within the lines and are indicated by commas, ellipses (line 12), and the period (line 7). Only lines 9, 11, and 14 end with a heavy pause (a semicolon or period).

The effect of this pause patterning is to pace the argument unconventionally, using light pauses (the comma and line ends) to give emphasis and structure to the argument. Enjambment—running the meaning from one line to the next around the line end—is used to de-emphasize the rhymes in favor of the continuity of thought. Though the poem, with few heavy pauses, has a light touch, it tends to break up its argument into discrete parcels, as though the poet were not entirely sure of herself. Diffidence is hinted at in the “I think” of the first line, and line 3 (which contains four commas) breaks into a tripping rhythm, as if to convey how the “footsteps” moved “as they stole.”

The use of commas enables the poet to give some of her words double meanings. In lines 9 and 10, for example, placing commas around “Sweet” and “heaven” respectively suggests more than one reading. Though obviously an address, “Sweet” could be read as a complement of “sweetness,” reinforcing that sentiment. In line 10, however, the commas render “country” and “heaven” both apposite and complementary, though the sense of the line makes them coordinate ideas. Indeed, coordination plays a large role in the last six lines of the sonnet, whereas subordination dominates the first eight lines. This structural peculiarity corresponds to a shift in the argument from an emphasis on the past to the present and future and suggests that the poet regards the past in terms of unequal measures and the present and future in terms of spiritual and emotional equality.

Barrett Browning makes some use of repetition and wordplay to reinforce her sentiments and subtly to lighten the subject of the poem. Opening with a reference to the “face” of the world and imaging “footsteps” stealing (“as they stole”) in the shadowy world of the spirit and death soften the impact of the subject on the reader. When the poet says that she “thought to sink,” one might remember the hesitancy of “I think” in line 1 and not feel directly confronted by the “dreadful” (line 4) subject being reviewed. The poet seems to want to move still further from this dolorous realm by repeating “sweetness, Sweet,” mentioning the “singing angels,” and even using words such as “fain” and “anear” to reflect the “new rhythm” she has been taught. Although one is certainly not in fairy land, echoes of it pervade the poem.

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Themes