Sonnets from the Portuguese Analysis
Sonnets from the Portuguese is a beautifully written collection of forty-four love sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (née Moulton) that are widely regarded as some of the best-written pieces of poetry in the English language, rivaling Shakespeare's sonnets.
Her writing in these sonnets is effusive and elaborate in how deep is the love of her poems' speaker (generally considered to be Browning herself) for her lover. She very effectively uses metaphor, imagery, and religious imagery to relay her depth of emotion.
One of the first things that is evident and prominent in her sonnets is religious and supernatural imagery. She spends a great deal of time in these sonnets speaking about the afterlife, the actions of God and angels, and the tenants of scripture. In doing this, she ties the relationship and the love and devotion the lovers share to heaven, making it greater than this earth. It is common to hear in wedding ceremonies "until death do us part," but Browning takes it a step further by saying, that nothing in heaven or hell can separate the lovers. This takes the connection in the relationship from being a merely human and natural one to one that transcends time and space itself.
Another stylistic choice is the use of imagery to convey deep emotions. For instance, in Sonnet 6, the speaker states that if her lover departs, she will forever stand in his shadow. This imagery is present throughout the entire collection of sonnets and is used to effectively convey emotions that aren't easily expressed in words. Being bathed in shadows for eternity is a much more powerful sentiment than simply being sad or feeling alone. It portrays a state of desolation, isolation, and complete brokenness that could otherwise sound very clumsy to express. One of Browning's clear talents is being able to skillfully weave together these complex types of imagery and religious symbolism with the threads of love and emotion to create a beautifully written work of poetry.
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...
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