Sonnets from the Portuguese

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1239

Disguised on its publication as a translation from the work of the Portuguese poet Luis Vas de Camoëns, Sonnets from the Portuguese consists of forty-four sonnets—fourteen-line poems of rhymed iambic pentameter. The first four lines of an Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet make a statement that the next four lines prove. These eight lines are the “octave.” There follows a “turn” in thought. The next six lines, the “sestet,” prove further and conclude the statement. The Petrarchan rhyme scheme is abba, abba, cde, cde. Browning often writes her sestets, however, with a rhyme scheme of cdcdcd. She has been criticized for not adhering strictly to tradition and for not making her rhymes exact.

Nevertheless, her experiments in slant rhyme, which were previously considered technical faults, show Browning to have a more modern ear, for in the twentieth century, exact rhyme rings more and more false as the century wears on. She has been criticized also for not stopping at the ends of each quatrain or at the end of the octave, and for running the lines on past their traditional stopping points. This technique, however, which is called enjambment, delivers her sonnets from what to a modern ear is the sing-song sound of end-stopped rhyme and allows her greater fluidity of thought.

Browning has been criticized also for writing extremely personal and intense love poetry, with no mask either to protect the writer’s emotions or to shield the reader from getting too close. Yet it is in this aspect that the sonnets are brilliant. This first-person point of view is actually that of the poet (the progress of the poems can be read along with the same story in Elizabeth and Robert’s letters); it is also the voice of a specific woman speaking to a specific listener, and for a century and a half, readers have known who these people are: a middle-aged and ailing woman poet who has seen in her future only the same feebleness of body and spirit that she experienced earlier, and a younger man, also a poet. They tell a story that contains as much reality as romance. The romance is that her beloved has come to rescue her. The reality is that she sees herself as unrescuable. The story of the Sonnets from the Portuguese is the story of that middle-aged, unrescuable, and therefore unlovable (according to her) woman poet who is overwhelmed by love and by life. This is not a series of idealizing love poems, but a cycle of very real expressions of a woman who has suffered not only ill health and disappointment but also disillusionment and loss of hope.

Although the Sonnets are autobiographical, they are at the same time consciously crafted works written in one of the most difficult poetic forms by a major artistic voice of her time and place. The controlling idea for the entire sequence is that love is, in fact, stronger than death. She expresses this theme through certain aesthetic moves. After she has established her own melancholy, by mentioning tears and weeping, grief and heavy-heartedness, she shows that the beloved has come between her and her grave (Sonnet 7). She continues, however, to use images of grief to characterize herself, and it is in her grief and world-weariness more than anything that she claims she is unworthy of his love (Sonnet 8). She contrasts herself to him, usually using royal images to portray him, but never portraying him as concretely as she portrays herself. She shows herself to be an agent of decay: “I will not soil thy purple with my dust,/ Nor breathe my poison on thy Venice-glass” (Sonnet 9). Venetian glass was known to shatter when it came in contact with poisoned liquids.

When she speaks of the union of souls, however, the poet uses images of light and fire, flashing flames, a “golden throne” (Sonnet 12), “wings” that “break into fire” (Sonnet 22). These images gain even more brilliance because much of the imagery of the sonnets is dark, of dust and of enclosure. Yet images of light and life prevail, since love has created them. Whereas she has characterized her earlier despondency as a life that is colorless because tears have faded it, in the last sonnet she asks the beloved to “keep the colors [of the flowers] true.”

Just as she compares herself to her beloved, darkness to light, and death to life, she compares past to future. She repeatedly shows that before she met him, she had lost her faith in living; she looked to God for strength to go on, but she lived in a kind of bleak despair that had no vision of a future. His love changes the entire direction of her life. She is uplifted to the point of being able to see that ever so much as the human heart thinks it wants, God gives more than one can imagine; and her beloved is more than she ever thought to pray for. She had reconciled herself to seek her future in heaven, but his love draws her back from the grave.

In Sonnet 43, many of the themes of the sequence come together. This is Browning’s most famous work and one of the most famous poems in the English language. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” has captured the hearts of readers for almost 150 years. It is written in much more abstract terms than is the rest of the sequence, but the poems that have come before it have in a sense already defined what one reads here. For example, she has already written of souls in connections with light and ascent, so when she writes here of “the depth and breadth and height/ My soul can reach,” one has already read of the expansiveness of the soul in love. She has also written over and over again about her grief and how she has thought herself destined for only the grave, so the reader should already understand about “the passions put to use/ In my old griefs.” The last two lines of this sonnet pull the entire sequence together: “and, if God choose,/ I shall but love thee better after death.” In the first instance, the beloved has turned her away from death to life in this world. In doing so, he has turned her away from a contemplation of heaven in an afterlife. It becomes this very love that inspires her back toward God, toward a desire for eternity. Here, however, it is not an eternity that is longed for only for the sake of its being something better than this life. It is an eternity in which temporal love has itself become eternal.

Sonnets from the Portuguese is an enduring record of the love of one individual for another and, through that love, of the restoration of hope and the enhancement of the will to live. The sequence is captivating because in it, a real female voice writes about her most private feelings of love. At first, one thinks one is hearing Shakespeare or Petrarch, but then one realizes that Browning has dropped the conventional metaphors and masks. In fact, she goes so far as hardly to create an image of the beloved at all. One hears the first-person “I,” and, as much as one thinks one ought to say that it is her poetic persona, one knows that it is the voice of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

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