Sonnets from the Portuguese

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a collection of love sonnets that she wrote over a period of several years. She initially did not want to publish them, but her husband and others encouraged her to because of their obvious merit. Some even compared them to Shakespeare’s sonnets in terms of her skill and mastery of the English language and of metaphor. She decided to publish them under the misleading title Sonnets from the Portuguese to imply external authorship and that she merely acted as translator for the works.

In total, there are forty-four sonnets, and they speak of a deep and boundless love between two individuals. The implication in many of the poems is that neither heaven nor earth can separate the true and transcendent love of these two individuals. The works are rife with religious metaphors and overtones, speaking at length of the Lord speaking to the lovers and the ministering angels watching over them. Browning states in one of the early sonnets that, essentially, if God said they could not be together, the lovers would race toward one another all the faster still, because they can’t bear to be separated.

The depth of love Browning expresses through her speaker in these sonnets is truly magnificent, because it seems unbound by all physical and earthly restrictions and flies in the face of any action from God. The speaker argues that because of the strength of her passion, it simply wouldn’t be right for her to deny her love to the other party in the sonnets.

In addition to religious symbolism, Browning also employs a mastery of historical knowledge and classics throughout these poems. She makes frequent references to tragic Greek figures of antiquity, like Electra, and often uses them often as foils for the purity of the speaker's love for her lover. This command of language and history helps to make these sonnets some of the greatest in the English language.

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