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Analysis of Poem 'I think of thee' (Sonnet 29) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a Summary of 'I think of thee' (Sonnet 29)

'I think of thee' is Sonnet 29 in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, a groundbreaking sequence of Petrarchan sonnets that focus on love and emotional change in a relationship.

  • In this sonnet, the speaker likens her thoughts to a leafy vine that wraps around the tree (her lover), obscuring all, until she urges the tree to shake off the clinging foliage and be renewed. She then will be too near to think—thoughts will give way to physical intimacy and sensuality.
  • There are 14 lines with a dominant iambic metre (see below for a detailed analysis). Whilst the octave follows the traditional Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet form with a rhyme scheme abba abba, the sestet rhymes cac aca.
  • Structurally, the first four lines focus on the speaker's thoughts . . . I think of thee . . . lines 5–11 on an ideal (for her partner) . . . Yet, O my palm-tree... and lines 12–14 on a conclusion . . . Because, in this deep joy to see . . .

Critics, mostly male, were not happy when Elizabeth Barrett Browning, already well known as a poet in the English speaking world, published her sonnets in 1850 with the full backing of her husband, poet Robert Browning.

In Victorian times, love sonnets were the domain of the male speaker, a vehicle from which to announce their affection for a female. This was a strongly held tradition continuing on from Shakespeare and the Elizabethan poets of the 16th and 17th centuries.

  • Sonnets from the Portuguese, all 44 of them, have a female speaker, are strongly first-person, and articulate deep emotional energy inspired by her love for, and gratitude towards, her male partner. In them, the poet chooses 'Not death but love.'
  • Often the speaker reveals unworthiness and inadequacy in the 'presence' of the male who is 'dearer, better' . . . but this passive subordination reflects a struggle within to become an equal, by paying a profoundly deep emotional debt.
  • By writing these sonnets, Elizabeth Barrett breaks free and—despite the critical response (some thought the sonnets overly sentimental, cringeworthy, too personal . . . including the poet herself)—opened up the doors for other female poets bound to break the male tradition.

In essence, the near reclusive poet, under the strict gaze of her disciplinarian father, living hardly a life in a West London room, addicted to laudanum as a painkiller, felt she had been rescued by Robert Browning, who fell in love with her poetry, then the poet.

She eventually returned the love, becoming beguiled by Robert Browning, who she thought the superior poet, with special powers:

'And I say in my heart, that, magnet or no magnet, I have been drawn back into life & for you . . . that I see the dancing mystical lights that are seen through the eyelids . . . and I think of you with unspeakable gratitude always - always! - no other could have done this for me: it was not possible, except by you.'

-Letter from EBB to RB, May 1846

Modern scholars tend to be of two minds with regards to the language used in Sonnets from the Portuguese. Some think that the language of surrender and subservience undermines the whole and is politically suspect. Others note the intelligent yet sensitive voice, the subtle way the speaker's humility wins through despite the emotional struggles and battles.

We have to take into account the conventions of Victorian society at that time to get an idea of just how Elizabeth Barrett must have felt when Robert Browning began to court her.

In her letters, she expresses a deep-seated reluctance to meet him. Shyness, sensitivity and a bleak domestic situation added to her doubt. But her spirits were good-humoured despite long-term illness and addiction. She wrote that she might have the effect of morphine on him if they did get together—potentially toxic to him.

Yet he persisted, for years, before she finally gave in. Little wonder she saw him as her man in shining armour. Her sonnets reflect genuine respect and love for the man who would not take no for an answer. Think of the most famous sonnet from the sequence, 'How Do I Love Thee?'

But what of the many other sonnets, full of self-pity, heavy heart, trembling heart, pale cheeks, tears and ashes, self-deprecation—the female in awe of the hero?

What is a modern feminist critic to make of such sentiments? According to one, the sonnets reflect the:

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'politics of subject and object . . . traditionally a sexual politics, by which the woman is desirable and inspiring for being, herself, without desire and without language'

-Angela Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1986

Or is it possible to see the female poet in this instance as an artist articulating her feelings in a confessional manner, pioneering, honest, on equal terms with her male lover?

Elizabeth Barrett, as a precocious teenager, knew that she was a little bit different when she wrote:

'My mind is naturally independent and spurns that subserviency of opinion which is generally considered necessary to feminine softness.'

-'Glimpses into My Own Life and Literary Character' (1820)

Years later, as a rather sad, lonely recluse, albeit well known in literary circles and a major poet, she noted in a letter to Robert Browning:

'There is nothing to see in me, my poetry is the flower of me, the rest of me is nothing but a root, fit for the ground and the dark.'

-Letter from EBB to RB, May 1845

In the spring of 1846, they were married, secretly, in London, before eloping to Italy, eventually settling at the Casa Guidi in Florence. They had one child, Pen, in 1849 and lived a happy, creative life. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, always fragile, died in Robert Browning's arms in the summer of 1861.

'I think of thee' (Sonnet 29) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I think of thee!—my thoughts do twine and bud

About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,

Put out broad leaves, and soon there 's nought to see

Except the straggling green which hides the wood.

Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood

I will not have my thoughts instead of thee

Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly

Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,

Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,

And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee

Drop heavily down,—burst, shattered, everywhere!

Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee

And breathe within thy shadow a new air,

I do not think of thee—I am too near thee.

Line-by-Line Analysis of 'I think of thee'

This sonnet focuses on the thoughts of the speaker, metaphorically leafy wild vines that are growing around a tree and crowding it out. The speaker's thoughts are overwhelming and unwanted and she wants them gone, replaced by close intimacy and clarity. The first line is full of thought, the final line lacking any thought.

Lines 1–4

The first person speaker is thinking of someone (we know it's Robert Browning)—that archaic Victorian word thee meaning you. These thoughts are wild vines, growing so much they smother the tree with large leaves so that only the green can be seen.

Metaphorically the tree is the lover, the vine leaves the many confusing thoughts the speaker experiences. These thoughts are a veil and deny the speaker the essential presence of the male.

Lines 5–8

The male is metaphorically a palm-tree—a tree not usually associated with England but with warmer climes. Is the speaker suggesting that her lover is exotic? A little bit different?

There follows a kind of plea where the speaker wants her lover to know (and arguably everyone else) that her thoughts, selfish and crowding, are not wanted. All the speaker desires is her palm-tree, Robert Browning, who she sees as dearer, better!

She wants action from her lover; she wants it now.

This belittling position taken by the speaker is common throughout Sonnets from the Portuguese—the male lover is seen as superior, the female speaker inferior and it is this surrendering (of dignity?) that so annoys the more feminist critic.

But conversely, by contrasting subordination with dominance and using the context of struggle and fight, the feelings the speaker has for her lover are strengthened and authenticated.

Lines 9–11

The active verbs reflect movement and positivity. The tree is about to be uncovered, freed. The female speaker is in demanding form. There's an energy of relationship about to happen—the vines, the smothering thoughts of negativity perhaps are about to be swept aside.

That word insphere means to enclose. So the tree, the male, the lover, Robert Browning, has shaken and snapped and scattered the dark shadowy leaves, her doomy thoughts.

Lines 12–14

The conclusive finale has the speaker in a sort of confessional mode. As they become closer, physically, sensually, joyfully, the over-thinking speaker, the female, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, has no more need of thought.

What Is the Metre in 'I think of thee' (Sonnet 29)?

Whilst the iambic foot dominates this sonnet, only four lines are pure iambic pentameter—the traditional five feet per line with unstressed syllable preceding a stressed: daDUM daDUM and so on.

The rest are a mix of various metrical feet—lines with trochee, pyrrhic and spondee, which help break up the familiar iambic beat.

Let's take a closer look. Stressed syllables are in bold type:

I think / of thee!— / my thoughts / do twine / and bud

About / thee, as / wild vines, / about / a tree,

Put out / broad leaves, / and soon / there 's nought / to see

Except / the stragg / ling green / which hides / the wood.

Yet, O / my palm- / tree, be / it und / erstood

I will / not have / my thoughts / instead / of thee

Who art / dearer, / better! / Rather, / instantly

Renew / thy pres / ence; as / a strong / tree should,

Rustle / thy boughs / and set / thy trunk / all bare,

And let / these bands / of green / ery / which in / sphere thee

Drop heav / ily / down,—burst, / shattered, / everywhere!

Because, / in this / deep joy / to see / and hear thee

And breathe / within / thy sha / dow a / new air,

I do / not think / of thee— / I am / too near thee.

Only lines 1, 4, 5 and 6 are iambic pentameter (10 syllables, five regular feet).

Line 7 has instantly, a three-syllable word, 11 syllables in total, with an unstressed ending.

Lines 10, 11, 12 and 14 have 11 syllables which stretch the lines naturally and end in an unstressed syllable, traditionally called a feminine ending.

Why 'Sonnets from the Portuguese'? Elizabeth Barrett Browning Explains

'Now I am going to speak to you about those sonnets. I have had a letter from dear Mr Kenyon, & he & Mr Forster detected them as well as you—and a letter from America speaks of “the Portuguese sonnets so called.”—and a letter from Mrs Payne disapproves of the “blind” & tells me that the open truth wd have been “worthier of me” . . . by which, I am a little, just a little, vexed. The truth is that though they were written several years ago, I never showed them to Robert till last spring . . . I felt shy about them altogether .. even to him. I had heard him express himself strongly against ‘personal’ poetry & I shrank back. – As to publishing them, it did not enter my head. But when Robert saw them, he was much touched & pleased—&, thinking highly of the poetry, he did not like, . . . could not consent, he said, that they should be lost to my volumes: so we agreed to slip them in under some sort of veil, & after much consideration chose the “Portuguese.” Observe—the poem which precedes them, is “Catarina to Camoens”. In a loving fancy, he had always associated me with Catarina, and the poem had affected him to tears, he said, again & again. So, Catarina being a Portuguese, we put “Sonnets from the Portuguese”—which did not mean (as we understood the double-meaning) “from the Portuguese language” . . . though the public (who are very little versed in Portuguese literature) might take it as they pleased.'

-Letter to Arabella Moulton-Barrett, January 12th, 1851

Sources

© 2022 Andrew Spacey

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