Themes

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Last Updated on June 27, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413

The sonnets have had a complicated critical history. Originally praised upon their release for their emotional honesty, in the first part of the twentieth century they fell into critical disfavor for what was then called their "sentimental" or stilted nature. In the last fifty years, critics have begun to consider...

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The sonnets have had a complicated critical history. Originally praised upon their release for their emotional honesty, in the first part of the twentieth century they fell into critical disfavor for what was then called their "sentimental" or stilted nature. In the last fifty years, critics have begun to consider the poems in the context of feminist discourse. Browning's sonnet sequence is primarily about love, of course, but that term covers a lot of territory. Below are a few themes to consider.

Autobiography

Despite their title, it soon became clear to readers that these were not "translations" but expressions of Browning's own feelings. The poems' emotional frankness and the degree to which they capture her "true" feelings for Robert Browning set them apart from much Victorian literature.

The Female Voice

Implicit in Browning's work is the question of the role of the female poet. The sonnet form, in particular, had been, before Browning, a predominantly male art. Browning's poems challenge the "maleness" of the sonnet and use it to explore love from a female point of view.

Relation to Tradition

Browning's poems exist in dialogue with earlier sonnet practitioners like Shakespeare and Petrarch. Like Petrarch, Browning uses her sonnets as a way of critiquing herself or comparing herself to her beloved.

Sexuality

Browning's poems contain many expressions of desire. Feminine sexuality is a powerful and dangerous force that undergirds many of these sonnets.

These themes come together in many of the poems. Take, for example, Sonnet V, in which Browning's speaker, "like Electra," pours still smoldering ashes of her grief at her beloved's feet. The allusion to the Electra story places the speaker's passion in the context of Electra's reunion with her brother, Orestes; in Sophocles's play, the ashes supposedly are the ashes of Orestes, but in Browning's formulation, the ashes represent the speaker's passion, exposed on the floor. Her beloved can choose to stamp out the embers, or he can wait for a wind to turn them into flame. Her passion is such that even his poetic skill ("those laurels on thine head") will not protect him.

The poem at once locates itself within a classical tradition, contrasts the speaker's love with Electra's, and expresses the dangerous (and shameful) power of her passion. Her final admonition to her beloved "to stand further off" may express both Browning's personal shame at revealing herself so completely and, perhaps, a challenge to the reader to close the book if such raw emotion is too much.

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