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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 5: "I lift my heavy heart up solemnly"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning masterfully employs the Petrarchan form in her classic sonnet sequence, her tribute to her belovèd husband.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 5: "I lift my heavy heart up solemnly"

In sonnet 5 from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker's lack of confidence in her own value as a person and poet makes her doubt that the budding relationship with her new belovèd will continue to blossom.

The melancholy speaker's little dramas continue to exude her lack of self esteem, while she also makes it known that she holds her belovèd in the highest regard. Likely she feels unworthy of such an accomplished individual.

Sonnet 5: "I lift my heavy heart up solemnly"

I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see
What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,
And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn
Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn
Could tread them out to darkness utterly,
It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up,... those laurels on thine head,
O My beloved, will not shield thee so,
That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
The hair beneath. Stand further off then! Go.

Reading of Sonnet 5

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 5 focuses on her lack of confidence that her budding relationship will continue to grow.

First Quatrain: Dramatic Ashes

I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see

In the first quatrain of Sonnet 5 from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker likens her heart to the urn held by Electra, who thought she was holding the ashes of her dead brother Orestes in Sophocles' tragic Greek play, Electra.

The speaker is raising the "sepulchral urn" of her heart to her beloved, and then suddenly, she spills the ashes at his feet. She commands him to look at those ashes.

The speaker has established in her opening sonnets that not only is she but a humble poet shielded from the eyes of society, but she is also one who has suffered greatly from physical maladies as well as mental anguish. She has suffered thinking that she may never have the opportunity to love and be loved.

Second Quatrain: Dropping Grief

What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,
And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn
Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn
Could tread them out to darkness utterly

The speaker continues the metaphor of her heart as filled with ashes by commanding her beloved to look and see, "What a great heap of grief lay hid in me." She metaphorically compares the ashes held within the urn of her heart to her grief.

Now she has dropped those ashes of grief at the feet of her beloved. But she notices that there seem to be some live coals in the heap of ashes; her grief is still burning "through the ashen greyness." She speculates that if her beloved could stomp out the remaining burning coals of her grief, that might be all well and good.

First Tercet: Burning Coals of Grief

It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up,... those laurels on thine head,

If, however, he does not tread on those burning coals of grief and merely remains still beside her, the wind will stir up those ashes, and they may land on the head of the beloved, a head that is garlanded with laurels.

It will be remembered that the speaker has, in the two preceding sonnets, made it clear that her beloved has prestige and the attention of royalty. Thus, he is as one who is declared a winner with the reward of laurels.

Second Tercet: In the Throes of Sorrow

O My beloved, will not shield thee so,
That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
The hair beneath. Stand further off then! Go.

The speaker avers that even those laurels will not be able to protect his hair from being singed, once the wind has blown those live coals upon his head. She therefore bids him, "Stand farther off then! go."

In the throes of incredible sorrow, the speaker is awakening slowly to the possibility that she can be loved by someone whom she deems her superior in every way. Her head is bare, not garlanded with laurels as is his.

She must give him leave to forsake her because she believes that he will do so after he fully comprehends who she really is. Although she, of course, hopes he will protest and remain beside her, she does not want to deceive herself, falsely believing that he will, in fact, remain with her.

The Brownings

The Brownings

EBB Sonnets from the Portuguese

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 25, 2015:

I'll see what I can do. I'm sure I want to critique a colleague, but if anything specific stands out, I'll let you know.

Andrei Andreescu from Seattle, Washington on November 25, 2015:

Thank you! It is an honor.Please tell me if it needs any improvement.I much apreciate objective criticism.I am very strict to myself when it comes to poetry.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 23, 2015:

Interesting. I'll have to check out your work. Thanks for the info!

Andrei Andreescu from Seattle, Washington on November 23, 2015:

You are welcome.My own poems are inspired from Bacovia's work.Other influences are Edgar Alan Poe ,Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 23, 2015:

Thanks for the link, looks like an informative site!

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 23, 2015:

I have heard of Andrei Codrescu, but not acquainted with much of his work. I'll have to check him out, as well as George Bacovia. Thanks for the info.

Andrei Andreescu from Seattle, Washington on November 23, 2015:

I recommend George Bacovia-the Romanian Symbolist poet.I hope you will like his work. http://www.aboutromania.com/bacovia.html

Andrei Andreescu from Seattle, Washington on November 23, 2015:

Oh,I got that wrong.I remember seeing one of her poems on Academy of American Poets web page and I thought she was American.Do you happen to know any Romanian poets as well?

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 23, 2015:

Mihnea, you are very welcome. As a former teacher, I am quite accustomed to "schooling" folks! Actually, Elizabeth Barrett Browning is British, not American. My specialty is Eastern philosophy/poetry also; although my PhD concentration was British Lit.

Interesting factoid about John Berryman: he was born "John Smith."

Andrei Andreescu from Seattle, Washington on November 22, 2015:

Wow .I did not know this.Thank you for schooling me a bit on American poets here.I am currently learning more about American poets.I am traditionally accustomed to eastern and western European poets but became fascinated with some American poets like Edgar Allan Poe,Elizabeth Browning ,the school of confessionalist poetry (Sexton,Plath,Berryman) and ultimately Symbolist Hayden Carruth,

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 22, 2015:

Thank you, Mihnea, for your response. Yes, interesting poet, Carruth. Galway Kinnell made a fascinating observation about Hayden Carruth: “This is not a man who sits down to ‘write a poem’; rather, some burden of understanding and feeling, some need to know, forces his poems into being. Thoreau said, ‘Be it life or death, what we crave is reality.' So it is with Carruth.”

Andrei Andreescu from Seattle, Washington on November 21, 2015:

Very interesting I love Elizabeth Browning.I write Symbolist free-form poetry and wrote some sonnets as well.My favourite American poet is Hayden Carruth.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 17, 2015:

Thank you, Pat! EBB is certainly one of the best sonneteers. Thanks for the angels!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on November 17, 2015:

Elizabeth's works are among some that I do like to return to to reread. I do wish I had had some of this insight when I read her work in tenth and eleventh grade.

Thanks for sharing.

Angels are once again on the way to you ps

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