Sonnets from the Portuguese
Despite its title, this sequence of love poems is not a translation, but a very personal telling of the love story of Elizabeth Barrett and the poet Robert Browning. Elizabeth, who had been living in virtual seclusion with only her spaniel, Flush, as a companion in a home dominated by an iron-willed, classically Victorian father, received a fan letter from Browning which led to their meeting, to their falling in love, and ultimately to their elopement and marriage. The poems, which she wrote privately for her lover’s eyes alone, were published after their marriage at his urging. To maintain some privacy, she wanted to call them Sonnets from the Bosnian, but Robert suggested that she substitute Portuguese as the appropriate language of their imaginary origin.
The poems were very popular during the poet’s lifetime, and they remain so today.
They are in many ways typically Victorian with their tone of gloom and sorrow, their almost morbid sensitivity to illness and death, their great outpouring of feeling as love develops, and the force and intensity of their passion. Elizabeth had been in frail health since childhood, and she fully expected to live alone until an early death. The lover in the poems, as Robert did in her life, brings about her resurrection from a living death, giving her faith in herself and the courage to live fully in the wide world beyond her father’s house.
The poems, because of the universality of the feelings they express and their complex patterns of religious symbolism, carry meaning far beyond the personal story and its Victorian identity. They are deservedly still admired and still read.
Burdett, Osbert. The Brownings. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1936. Though dated, and consequently containing conclusions and facts that have since proven false, this biography contains one of the most readable treatments of the Sonnets from the Portuguese, detailing the development of the Brownings’ love through a reading of the poems.
Cooper, Helen. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. An excellent study of...
(The entire section is 901 words.)