The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 513 words.)