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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese: Sonnets 1, 2, and 3

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

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: "I thought once how Theocritus had sung"

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

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.

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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.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 2: "But only three in all God’s universe"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s second sonnet from Sonnets from the Portuguese reports that her relationship with her life-mate is granted by God, and thus, it cannot be broken or disavowed.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 2 focuses on her growing relationship with her belovèd life partner, Robert Browning. Her speaker insists that the relationship is their destiny; it is karmically determined, and therefore, nothing in this world could have kept them apart once God had issued the decree for them to come together.

Sonnet 2: "But only three in all God’s universe"

But only three in all God’s universe
Have heard this word thou hast said,—Himself, beside
Thee speaking, and me listening! and replied
One of us … that was God, … and laid the curse
So darkly on my eyelids, as to amerce
My sight from seeing thee,—that if I had died,
The deathweights, placed there, would have signified
Less absolute exclusion. "Nay" is worse
From God than from all others, O my friend!
Men could not part us with their worldly jars,
Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend;
Our hands would touch for all the mountain-bars:
And, heaven being rolled between us at the end,
We should but vow the faster for the stars.

Reading of Sonnet 2

Commentary on Sonnet 2: "But only three in all God’s universe"

In sonnet 2, the speaker reports that her relationship with her life-mate is granted by God, and thus, it cannot be broken or disavowed.

First Quatrain: A Private and Holy Trinity

But only three in all God’s universe
Have heard this word thou hast said,—Himself, beside
Thee speaking, and me listening! and replied
One of us … that was God, … and laid the curse

The speaker avers that in the couple’s relationship, there are only three beings who have been privy to "this word thou hast said." When her partner first told her that he loved her, she senses that God was speaking His own love for her as well.

As she excitedly but tenderly took in the meaning of the declaration of love, she realized what her lot might have become without this happy turn of events. She responds rather hesitantly, even awkwardly recalling her physical illnesses that she labels "the curse."

Second Quatrain: The Curse of the Body

So darkly on my eyelids, as to amerce
My sight from seeing thee,—that if I had died,
The deathweights, placed there, would have signified
Less absolute exclusion. "Nay" is worse

The speaker’s reference to the "curse" is an exaggeration of the earthly physical body’s many issues with the pain of having to exist in a physical body. Additionally, it might be helpful for readers to know that the poet did suffer much physical illness during her lifetime. Thus, she can rightly allow her speaker to focus on the inharmonious circumstances that have disrupted but also informed the dramatic issues infusing her poetics.

This particular "curse" that was put "[s]o darkly on [her] eyelids" might have hampered her ability to see her beloved. Even if she had died, her separation from him would have been no worse then her inability to see him in this life.

First Tercet: God's No

From God than from all others, O my friend!
Men could not part us with their worldly jars,
Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend;

The speaker then truthfully responds, "‘Nay’ is worse / / From God than from all others, O my friend!" If God’s answer to a mortal’s most ardent prayer is a resounding no, then that supplicant will suffer more than being turned down by a mere fellow mortal. The suffering is likely to continue until that deluded soul finally reaches emancipation, thereby understanding all.

But by good fortune, God brought this pair together, and thus, "Men could not part us with their worldly jars, / Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend." The speaker is echoing the marriage vow: "what God hath joined together, let no man put asunder." Thus, the speaker is asserting that the bond that rendered her happiest on this earthly plane of being is the one with her beloved partner and future husband.

Second Tercet: Ordained by God

Our hands would touch for all the mountain-bars:
And, heaven being rolled between us at the end,
We should but vow the faster for the stars.

The speaker then reveals that she has confidence that her union with her beloved is ordained by God. With such assurance, she knows that even if "mountain-bars" tried to separate them, their "hands would touch."

So completely confident is she that can declare that even if after death, if heaven tried to disrupt in any way or intrude in their union, "We should but vow the faster for the stars."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Robert Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Robert Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 3: "Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!"

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 3 muses on how unlikely it seems that a plain singer such as herself would begin a relationship with a person who has attracted royalty.

The speaker of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 3 from Sonnets from the Portuguese contemplates the differences between her belovèd and her humble self. She continues her study of unlikely love employing the use of the Petrarchan sonnet form for the sequence.

The speaker thus dramatizes her musings as they focus on her relationship with her belovèd partner.

Sonnet 3: "Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!"

Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!
Unlike our uses and our destinies.
Our ministering two angels look surprise
On one another, as they strike athwart
Their wings in passing. Thou, bethink thee, art
A guest for queens to social pageantries,
With gages from a hundred brighter eyes
Than tears even can make mine, to play thy part
Of chief musician. What hast thou to do
With looking from the lattice-lights at me,
A poor, tired, wandering singer, singing through
The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?
The chrism is on thine head,—on mine, the dew,—
And Death must dig the level where these agree.

Reading of Sonnet 3

Commentary on Sonnet 3: "Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!"

The speaker in sonnet 3 is musing on how unlikely it seems that a plain singer such as herself would begin a relationship with a person who has attracted the attention and respect of royalty.

First Quatrain: Contemplating Differences

Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!
Unlike our uses and our destinies.
Our ministering two angels look surprise
On one another, as they strike athwart

The speaker begins with an excited remark. The humble speaker and her newly formed romantic partner perform very different roles in life; thus they would naturally be on the road to very different "destinies," one would assume. The speaker then paints a fantastic image wherein a couple of angels look with surprise, "On one another, as they strike athwart / / Their wings in passing."

This unusual pair of lovers possesses very different guardian angels, and those angels find themselves taken aback that this pair with such differing stations in life should come together and apparently begin to flourish in doing do. The angels' wings begin fluttering, as they questioningly peer upon the unlikely couple.

Second Quatrain: A Guest of Royalty

Their wings in passing. Thou, bethink thee, art
A guest for queens to social pageantries,
With gages from a hundred brighter eyes
Than tears even can make mine, to play thy part

The speaker reports that her new belovèd has often been "a guest for queens to social pageantries." The speaker is only a shy and retiring individual; she thus offers the contrast between her own social station and skills to that of one who has shined so brightly as to attract the acceptance into the company of royalty.

The speaker assumes that the folks he surely meets at the spectacular affairs of royalty no doubt look at him with "a hundred brighter eyes" than her own. Her tears even cannot be enough to render her eyes as bright as what he must experience at such high level social affairs.

First Tercet: Her Lowly Self

Of chief musician. What hast thou to do
With looking from the lattice-lights at me,
A poor, tired, wandering singer, singing through

The speaker then contends that unlike her lowly self, her new found love has played the role of "chief musician" at those gatherings of royalty. She, therefore, must question the notion that he would even bother to give her a second thought, after encountering the glamor and glitz of upper class events.

The speaker then puts the question to her romantic partner in order to become informed as to why one such as he would be "looking from the lattice-lights" at one such as herself. She wants to know why one who can so easily attract and associate with royalty can at the same time seem to be like a commoner, as he "lean[s] up a cypress tree," while peering up at her through her shaded-window.

Second Tercet: A Precious Oil

The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?
The chrism is on thine head,—on mine, the dew,—
And Death must dig the level where these agree.

Finally, the speaker declaims that her loved one sustains "chrism" on his head, but she possesses only "dew." The precious oil coming together with only plain dew boggles her mind; thus, she evokes the image, "Death must dig the level where these agree."

On the earthly plain and in a definitely class based society, the speaker cannot conciliate the differences between herself and her beloved. She therefore suggests that she will just allow "Death" to establish the meaning and purpose of this seemingly bizarre, but happy, occurrence.

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

The Brownings

Questions & Answers

Question: Why does the speaker of Elizabeth Browning's poem think she is held by "Death"? How does she get to know she was wrong?

Answer: As the speaker attempts to right herself, she detects what seems to be a "voice of mastery," which suggests a question to her, "Guess now who holds thee?” The speaker then fatalistically responds, “Death.” However, to her relieved surprise, the voice corrects her deadly response with, “Not Death, but Love.”

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 08, 2019:

Thank you, Ian.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was indeed a fine poet and has left some inspiring work for us all to consider. Her Sonnets from the Portuguese remains a widely anthologized classic, featuring some of the best examples of her skills as a poetic craftsman. She will be long remembered and admired for her insightful works.

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on March 08, 2019:

Today 2019, International Women's day we must pay tribute to Elizabeth Barrett Browning who being on of the many visionaries of her times deserves the accolades.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 28, 2016:

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

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 28, 2016:

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.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 28, 2016:

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

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 28, 2016:

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.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 21, 2016:

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

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 21, 2016:

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.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 19, 2016:

OK, I look forward to it.

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 19, 2016:

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).

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 18, 2016:

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.

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 18, 2016:

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.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 26, 2015:

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.

Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on October 26, 2015:

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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