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.
Sonnets from the Portuguese is Barrett Browning’s most enduring and popular poem, although it has been undervalued by critics. The sequence of sonnets was new and experimental when it was written. It adopted a poetic form and subject matter reserved for the expression of male amatory experience and depicted modern life and domestic events in a traditionally high literary form used to express the pursuit of ideal love and the poet’s failure to translate it into the actual world. Instead, Barrett Browning replaced the male poetic voice with her own and related the feelings that she experienced during Robert Browning’s courtship. The sonnets bring together the voice of a woman and the voice of the poet and make them one. They not only relate a courtship between a man and a woman but also relate the transformation of a woman into a poet. They authorize the woman to be a poet and ponder the problem of being both the object and the subject of love and poetic thought.
For a full understanding of the poems, it must be remembered that they are a sequence that forms a complete work describing a process that ends with achieved love and realized poetic power. Helen Cooper, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Woman and Artist (1988), divides the poems into three groups: woman seen as the object of a man’s desire and love (Sonnets 1 and 2), the woman struggling to free...
(The entire section is 851 words.)