Sonnets from the Portuguese Analysis
by Elizabeth Barrett Moulton

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Sonnets from the Portuguese Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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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...

(The entire section is 1,239 words.)