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.

Bibliography:

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...

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Form and Content

Sonnets from the Portuguese chronicles the stages in the romance of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, poet Robert Browning. The theme of the entire sequence is announced in the first sonnet. Reading Theocritus, the speaker muses on her own life and its melancholy. While in the midst of her dismal thoughts, she is pulled from behind by the hair. She thinks it is death, but she is corrected: “ ‘Not Death, but Love.’” This phrase resounds throughout this entire work, which tells how love entered her life and how the beloved, as if he were truly heaven sent, turned her from darkness and the contemplation of the grave to light, love, and life.

The first stage of the relationship runs from Sonnet 1 through Sonnet 9, in which the speaker says she is not worthy to be loved. She portrays herself as old, confined, solitary, and on the verge of death, and she compares this image of herself to the beloved, who is by contrast young, vibrant, sociable, and full of the world of which he is a part. In this stage, she repeatedly asks him to leave her, although ultimately she acknowledges that they are part of each other. She knows that if he does go, she will never be the same. When God sees her tears, the beloved’s tears will have blended with them.

Sonnet 10 marks the change to her acceptance of his love and her transformation. She has become aware that love dispels the darkness; she shines radiantly, with a kind of...

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Context

Like her female predecessors of the French and Italian Renaissance, and like Mary Wroth in the English Renaissance, in her pastoral sonnet cycle Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621), in Sonnets from the Portuguese, Browning inserts the female voice into the Petrarchan sonnet tradition. She assumes the stance of the silent Laura hearing Petrarch, the silent Catarina hearing Camoës, but she herself speaks of ideal love. This voice is her own, and the idealized beloved is her very real husband. Even though one hears only her voice, one can imagine the listener. In this way, Browning’s sonnets border on crossing with the form her husband perfected in such poems as “My Last Duchess”: the dramatic monologue, in which a specific speaker speaks to a specific listener in a specific situation. Moreover, the speaker does not stylize herself as the male Petrarchan voice stylizes himself and his beloved. She changes the tradition also by expressing concerns about her family connections.

Sonnets from the Portuguese marks Browning’s breaking off from the Romantic tradition upon which her poetics rests, the style of her predecessors L. E. L. and Felicia Hemans. The masks drop away, the literary conventions transform, and Browning writes in a bold “I.” Influenced by Shakespeare, John Milton, and William Words-worth in their use of the sonnet form, she was most likely also aware of Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets (1787) as...

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Places Discussed

Pastoral settings

Pastoral settings. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s imagery derives from several sources suggestive of place. Often, she does not specifically name the place that she invokes, but a close reading can determine it. Her first sonnet speaks of Theocritus, an ancient Greek poet who developed the pastoral, using bucolic scenes and idylls. Barrett Browning’s sonnets reveal her dependency on natural scenes as sources of wisdom. Nature is considered to possess a purity that fallen human nature cannot own. The sonnets are filled with references to owls, bats, crickets, woodland nightingales, bees—all manner of living things.

*Venice

*Venice. Italian city that is mentioned several times in the sonnets. In contrast to her pastoral references, Barrett Browning’s references to European cities add a layer of urban sophistication to the sonnets. For example, she calls a mirror “Venice-glass,” alluding to Murano glass, which was manufactured in Venice. In writing about the contents of her soul, she mentions the Rialto, a theatrical district and marketplace that takes its name from an island in Venice. The poet thereby shows her lover that she has the innocence of the pristine countryside, but the sophistication of a city.

Heaven

Heaven. Perhaps the most mentioned place in the sonnets. The poet longs for her union with her beloved, believing that such love is consistent with her soul’s longing for Heaven. Indeed, just as life in Heaven is blessed, so, too, is life on Earth blessed by such a union. The poet beseeches Heaven’s blessing and fears the loss of Heaven should her union with her lover not stand the test of time.

Bibliography

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 Browning’s poetics, relating them to the conflicting roles of women in the Victorian era.

Falk, Alice. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Her Prometheuses: Self-Will and a Woman Poet.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 7, no. 1 (Spring, 1988): 69-85. Discusses Browning’s translations of Aeschylus and her familiarity with and use of classical images.

Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Shows Mary Barrett, Elizabeth’s mother, to have been the shaping influence in her education. Revises the myth of Elizabeth’s father as the tyrant of Wimpole Street.

Hayter, Alethea. Mrs. Browning: A Poet’s Work and Its Setting. London: Faber and Faber, 1962. Though she does not think the Sonnets from the Portuguese Browning’s best work, Hayter’s detailed analyses of them are a good companion to the...

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