Updated date:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 11: "And therefore if to love can be desert"

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 11: "And therefore if to love can be desert"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 11, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, features the continued philosophizing of the obsessed speaker as she falls in love, while trying to justify that love to herself and to her belovèd. She hopes to convince herself that she deserves the attention of such an accomplished poet.

Sonnet 11: "And therefore if to love can be desert"

And therefore if to love can be desert,
I am not all unworthy. Cheeks as pale
As these you see, and trembling knees that fail
To bear the burden of a heavy heart,—
This weary minstrel-life that once was girt
To climb Aornus, and can scarce avail
To pipe now 'gainst the valley nightingale
A melancholy music,—why advert
To these things? O Belovèd, it is plain
I am not of thy worth nor for thy place!
And yet, because I love thee, I obtain
From that same love this vindicating grace,
To live on still in love, and yet in vain,—
To bless thee, yet renounce thee to thy face.

Reading of Sonnet 11: "And therefore if to love can be desert"

Commentary

The speaker is still walking the path to self-acceptance, still looking for the courage to believe in her own good fortune at finding a love that she wants to deserve.

First Quatrain: Berating Her Own Value

And therefore if to love can be desert,
I am not all unworthy. Cheeks as pale
As these you see, and trembling knees that fail
To bear the burden of a heavy heart,—

The speaker, who has so often berated her own value, now continues to evolve toward accepting the idea that she might, in fact, be "not all unworthy." She contends that if the ability to love can be deserved, as an award for goodness or service, she feels that it just might be possible for her to have enough importance to accept the love of one so obviously above her.

Again, however, she begins her litany of flaws; she has pale cheeks, and her knees tremble so that she can hardly "bear the burden of a heavy heart." She continues her string of self-deprecations into the second quatrain and first tercet.

Second Quatrain: To Accomplish Great Things

This weary minstrel-life that once was girt
To climb Aornus, and can scarce avail
To pipe now 'gainst the valley nightingale
A melancholy music,—why advert

The speaker has lived a "weary minstrel-life," and while she once thought of accomplishing great things, as Alexander the Great had taken Aornus, she now finds herself barely able to compose a few melancholy poems.

She finds it difficult even to compete "’gainst the valley nightingale," but she has also decided, while both thinking of and obsessing over these negative aspects of the life, to reconsider her possibilities. She realizes that she is merely distracting herself from more important issues.

First Tercet: Concentration on Negativity

To these things? O Belovèd, it is plain
I am not of thy worth nor for thy place!
And yet, because I love thee, I obtain

Thus the speaker asks herself, "why advert / / To these things?" Indeed, why concentrate on the past negativity, when such a glorious future has been heralded? She then directly addresses her suitor, claiming, "O Belovèd, it is plain / I am not of thy worth." She still insists on making it known how aware she is that she is not of her suitor’s station. However, she is now willing to consider that they might be able to grow a relationship.

Second Tercet: Advancing a Philosophical Position

From that same love this vindicating grace,
To live on still in love, and yet in vain,—
To bless thee, yet renounce thee to thy face.

The speaker advances an odd philosophical position that because she loves the man, that love will offer her "vindicating grace." Thus she can accept his love and love him while still allowing herself to believe that such a love is "in vain" and that she can still "bless" him with her love, while simultaneously she can "renounce [him] to [his] face."

The speaker's complex of accepting and rejecting allows her continue to believe she is both worthy yet somehow not quite worthy of this love. She cannot forsake the notion that she can never be equal to him, yet she can accept his love and the prospect that somehow, somewhere beyond her ability to grasp it is the possibility that despite all of her flaws, she ultimately is deserving of such a great and glorious love.

The Brownings

The Brownings

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the meaning of the line, "This weary minstrel-life that once was girt"?

Answer: The speaker is describing her life as one that has been tiresome with much mental wondering, though early on she felt she might be ready to accomplish much.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles