Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 1

Updated on June 18, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 1: "I thought once how Theocritus had sung"

Sonnets from the Portuguese is the most famous work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That work consists of 44 sonnets, all in the Petrarchan or Italian form. The theme of the series focuses directly on the budding love relationship between Elizabeth and the man who would become her husband, Robert Browning. As the relationship continues to flower, Elizabeth worries that it would not last. Her insecurities are on display in this series of poems.

Sonnet 1: "I thought once how Theocritus had sung"

I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in its antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was ’ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move 1
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,—
“Guess now who holds thee?”—“Death,” I said. But, there,
The silver answer rang,—“Not Death, but Love.”

Reading of Sonnet 1

Commentary

The first sonnet in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese features a speaker who expresses the fruitlessness of dwelling on death and the melancholy such musing will create.

First Quatrain: The Bucolic Classic Poetry of Theocritus

I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:

The speaker begins her dramatizing of her musing by imparting the fact that she has studied closely the bucolic poetry of the ancient classical poet, Theocritus. That classical Greek poet "had sung / Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years." She has perceived the idea from the poem’s insightful knowledge that every year offers “a gift to mortals”; the elderly and the youthful alike are capable of receiving those marvelous and sacred blessings.

The speaker's melancholy and loneliness have moved her to search out answers for questions that have plagued her, answers regarding the purpose of living. The speaker rightly and thankfully is consulting the ancient thinkers because she knows they have offered wisdom and courage to each succeeding generation.

Second Quatrain: Finding Her Own Life in Poetry

And, as I mused it in its antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung

After continuing to muse on the words of Theocritus, the speaker well understands the sentiment expressed in these words, that will bring her eyes to tears. And through those sincere tears, she seems to see her "own life." She knows that her own years have not been especially kind to her. Her own life has been filled with much sorrow. The gifts provided by time are not always welcome ones to the recipient. Such is life.

Each person’s karma is responsible for the specific happenings that occur in one’s life. One will always reap as one sows. But one does not have to be happy with the results, as one strives to change one’s karma through improving one’s behavior and thoughts.

Barrett Browning’s ability to understand the original Greek text is critical in her ability to feel the profound emotional impact of those thoughts. False "translators" such a Robert Bly, who could not read the texts he supposedly translated in the original, would likely add an absurd element rendering true emotion impossible, but Barrett Browning did understand the languages in which she read, and thus she could render a speaker with genuine emotion.

First Tercet: Life Beneath a Shadow

A shadow across me. Straightway I was ’ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move 1
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;

The speaker then asserts that her own life has been lived beneath a "shadow." This dark cloud has stretched "across [her]," and she, all of a sudden, becomes aware that she is crying. She senses that she is being dragged backward: someone or something is pulling her by the hair into some "mystic Shape." Unfortunately, she is not able to identify that strange creature who seems to be tugging at her.

Second Tercet: A Correcting Voice

And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,—
“Guess now who holds thee?”—“Death,” I said. But, there,
The silver answer rang,—“Not Death, but Love.”

As she attempts to right herself, the speaker then detects what seems to be a voice, a "voice of mastery," and it suggests a question to her; it says, "Guess now who holds thee?”

The speaker then immediately yet fatalistically responds, “Death.” However, to her relieved surprise, the voice corrects her deadly response with, “Not Death, but Love.”

An Enduring Love Story

The Brownings' love story has remained a subject for exploration as well as admiration in the poetry world. In her Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth creates and portrays a speaker who dramatizes the poet's many melancholy and doubt-filled moments. While she is at first elated that someone as accomplished as Robert Browning would notice her and want to spend time with her, she seems to grow doubtful that the relationship could bloom into true love.

Readers who explore the sonnets will be pleasantly charmed by her growth from doubt to deep awareness that the couple's love is real and supported by the Divine Belovèd. The Brownings' love story is a most uplifting love story, uniquely told in sonnets.

The Brownings

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

    © 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Thanks for info, limpet. Yes, they are a fascinating pair.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      It is a copy of the very one on your hub page work Elizabeth Barratt Browning's sonnets 11. Here the illustrator has used 'license' to alter her lips giving her a 'come on' grimance' and the irises of her eyes are looking upwards. In any case very flattering of him ( ? ) to say the least. There is no detail in her garments and no fingers yet un gloved. Now i am wanting to be an enthusiast of the whole Barrett Browning story.

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you, limpet! Is that print available anywhere online?

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      As promised, i have gone back to look at that picture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and it turns out to be a print of a sketch (unsigned) of a sitting portrait concentrating on the facial more than the pose. There is also a portrait there of Robert Browning who to me, comes across here in this picture as a dashing 'man about town'. A brief synopsis of their short and tragic lives is described as well as a mention of the Portuguese sonnet.

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      I'll have to see if I can find it. Sounds fascinating!

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      In the meantime, i have discovered the particular pose on google images for Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is both a portrait and a sketch of said portrait. You'll know it by the shimmering tresses of her hair and the 'come on' look she's showing facially.

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      OK, I look forward to it.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      As promised i will get back with more info after the next time i'm in the vicinity. They did reside in Wimpole Street in close by Marylebone. (pronounced Marleybone or Marill a bone, both are acceptable).

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Ian, I'd love to see that portrait. EBB always looks pleasant in her portraits, but I have never seen one that could be described as you have done. Hope you will post it soon.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      I've seen a framed portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the Metropolitan at London's Baker Street station. This one in particular depicts an incredibly beautiful young woman and utterly beguiling as well. I'll get more information on this later.

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you, Colin. Stay tuned. I'll be adding a commentary on each of the 44 sonnets in EBB's Sonnets from the Portuguese. I appreciate the kind words! Have a blessed day, my friend.

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 

      2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Can't say I've come across this one before, and a side of EBB I wasn't aware of (I'm not very well read!) Interesting and informative analysis, Linda. Great Hub.

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