Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Patience Taught by Nature"

Updated on October 19, 2019
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Library of Congress
Library of Congress | Source

Introduction and Text of "Patience Taught by Nature"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning perfected the Petrarchan sonnet form. All of her 44 entries in Sonnets from the Portuguese play out in that form. This poem demonstrates her continued fondness for that form, as she contemplates the contrast between the human being's penchant for "patience" in meeting challenges with that of animals and creatures that appear and function in the natural world.

Patience Taught by Nature

'O dreary life,' we cry, 'O dreary life!'
And still the generations of the birds
Sing through our sighing, and the flocks and herds
Serenely live while we are keeping strife
With Heaven's true purpose in us, as a knife
Against which we may struggle! Ocean girds
Unslackened the dry land, savannah-swards
Unweary sweep, hills watch unworn, and rife
Meek leaves drop yearly from the forest-trees
To show, above, the unwasted stars that pass
In their old glory: O thou God of old,
Grant me some smaller grace than comes to these!
But so much patience as a blade of grass
Grows by, contented through the heat and cold.

Reading of "Patience Taught by Nature"

Commentary

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's romantic poem, "Patience Taught by Nature," is an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet with the traditional rime scheme, ABBAABBACDECDE.

Octave: Human Nature

'O dreary life,' we cry, 'O dreary life!'
And still the generations of the birds
Sing through our sighing, and the flocks and herds
Serenely live while we are keeping strife
With Heaven's true purpose in us, as a knife
Against which we may struggle! Ocean girds
Unslackened the dry land, savannah-swards
Unweary sweep, hills watch unworn, and rife

In the octave of "Patience Taught by Nature," the speaker begins with a mournful refrain, "O dreary life! we cry, O dreary life!"; she sets out on her journey of complaint against the nature of human beings, who are always bemoaning and decrying their trials and tribulations in life. So many folks appear to be never satisfied, while the lower evolved creatures of nature seem to be models of serenity, cheerfulness, and patience—all the qualities that would make human life much more pleasant, productive, and enjoyable.

Then the speaker compares the ill-tempered human being to others of nature's forms of life: for example, "the birds / Sing through our sighing." While the human sits and sighs and frets, the birds are constantly cheerful. The birds and even the cattle "Serenely live while we are keeping strife." Human beings have the delicious advantage over the lower animals and creation because of the human ability to perceive "Heaven's true purpose."

That knowledge should be enough to act as a shield against all of human struggling. Even the ocean seems to soldier on, lapping upon the shores untrammeled by cares and woes. The land seems to carry on and "unweary sweep." The "hills watch" and do not become depressed.

Sestet: Calling on God

Meek leaves drop yearly from the forest-trees
To show, above, the unwasted stars that pass
In their old glory: O thou God of old,
Grant me some smaller grace than comes to these!
But so much patience as a blade of grass
Grows by, contented through the heat and cold.

Every year without complaint or misery, the trees throw down their leaves and then the human eye can catch a glimpse of the unruffled stars "that pass / In their old glory." Then the speaker bursts forth, mid-line, calling on God: "O thou God of old!"

The speaker is calling on God, as she had understood the concept in an earlier time, which she implies is more sturdy and durable than the uncertainties of the present. The past is always a comfortable haven for those who are miserable in the present: the good old days, the glory days are concepts that people use to assuage their present uneasiness.

In the last three lines, the speaker prays to the God of old to give her just a small portion of the grace that these aforementioned natural creatures possess. But she asks mostly for patience; she asks for the same patience that a "blade of grass" possesses as it continues to flourish "contented through the heat and cold."

The Pathetic Fallacy

The assigning of human emotion to animals and inanimate creatures in creation serves to communicate that emotion in a clear and often colorful way for the sake of art. That function is called the pathetic fallacy because in reality the human mind cannot know the true emotions of animals, trees, or the ocean. Whether the animal feels as the human does must remain a mystery, but in poetry the notion can be useful as the poet attempts to describe the indescribable.

The notion of a constantly contented, patient nature is, obviously, a very romantic one. One might point out that nature is not the perfect model this speaker seems to believe it is. The speaker has no way of knowing if the birds are really always so cheerful, and why should they be? They surely suffer greatly trying to procure their daily sustenance, building nests for their babies, whom they then must teach to be independent. And the oceans often whip up hurricanes and storms. And tornadoes sweep through the land uprooting trees. Rivers change their courses.

Many natural events involving animals and the landscape point to a lack of patience, grace, and serenity. So while the poem makes a lovely, romantic statement that the human being would be better served to be more patient and have more grace, the human being could search in a better, more accurate place other than the lower animals and unpredictable nature to find a model for that grace and patience. Perhaps the "God of old" might have an idea or two.

EBB & Robert Browning
EBB & Robert Browning | Source

An Overview of Sonnets from the Portuguese

Robert Browning referred lovingly to Elizabeth as "my little Portuguese" because of her swarthy complexion—thus the genesis of the title: sonnets from his little Portuguese to her belovèd friend and life mate.

Two Poets in Love

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese remains her most widely anthologized and studied work. It features 44 sonnets, all of which are framed in the Petrarchan (Italian) form.

The theme of the series explores the development of the budding love relationship between Elizabeth and the man who would become her husband, Robert Browning. As the relationship continues to flower, Elizabeth becomes skeptical about whether it would endure. She muses on examines her insecurities in this series of poems.

The Petrarchan Sonnet Form

The Petrarchan, also known as Italian, sonnet displays in an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. The octave features two quatrains (four lines), and the sestet contains two tercets (three lines).

The traditional rime scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is ABBAABBA in the octave and CDCDCD in the sestet. Sometimes poets will vary the sestet rime scheme from CDCDCD to CDECDE. Barrett Browning never veered from the rime scheme ABBAABBACDCDCD, which is a remarkable restriction imposed on herself for the duration of 44 sonnets.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Sectioning the sonnet into its quatrains and sestets is useful to the commentarian, whose job is to study the sections in order to elucidate meaning for readers unaccustomed to reading poems. The exact form of all of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 44 sonnets, nevertheless, consists of only one actual stanza; segmenting them is for commentarian purposes primarily.

A Passionate, Inspirational Love Story

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets begin with a marvelously fantastic open scope for discovery in the life of one who has a penchant for melancholy. One can imagine the change in environment and atmosphere from beginning with the somber thought that death may be one's only immediate consort and then gradually learning that, no, not death, but love is on one's horizon.

These 44 sonnets feature a journey to lasting love that the speaker is seeking—love that all sentient beings crave in their lives! Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s journey to accepting the love that Robert Browning offered remains one the most passionate and inspirational love stories of all time.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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