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.
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.
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...
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