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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 12

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

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 12

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 12" from Sonnets from the Portuguese reveals a speaker, who is musing on the happiness of having fallen in love with one so illustrious and accomplished as is her suitor.

Sonnet 12

Indeed this very love which is my boast,
And which, when rising up from breast to brow,
Doth crown me with a ruby large enow
To draw men’s eyes and prove the inner cost,—
This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,
I should not love withal, unless that thou
Hadst set me an example, shown me how,
When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed,
And love called love. And thus, I cannot speak
Of love even, as a good thing of my own:
Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,
And placed it by thee on a golden throne,—
And that I love (O soul, we must be meek!)
Is by thee only, whom I love alone.

Reading of Sonnet 12

Commentary

First Quatrain: The Effects of Love

Indeed this very love which is my boast,
And which, when rising up from breast to brow,
Doth crown me with a ruby large enow
To draw men’s eyes and prove the inner cost,—

The speaker recognizes the effects of the love she is experiencing. She flushes red-cheeked as she muses on her good luck. She believes it entirely appropriate that she "boast" because of her good fortune. She thinks that whoever sees her can understand that she is glowing with love from "breast to brow" because of her wonderful, dynamic suitor.

The speaker reports that her heart has gained speed, rushing to her face the blood results in the blushing that announces to the world that she is in love. She no longer can keep private her joy at being loved. Her feelings have become too full, too great to contain with a neutral pose.

Second Quatrain: Learning Deep Love

This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,
I should not love withal, unless that thou
Hadst set me an example, shown me how,
When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed,

Then the speaker declares something truly astonishing: she admits that without her beloved teaching her how to love at such a depth, she would not have been able to do so. Without his example, she would never have understood how love can completely engulf the heart and mind.

The speaker gradually little by little is coming to comprehend the importance of her burgeoning affection. She now begins to realize the glorious state of affairs that actually started as soon as their eyes first connected in their first love's deep glance.

First Tercet: Naming the Emotion

And love called love. And thus, I cannot speak
Of love even, as a good thing of my own:
Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,

The speaker realized for the first time the beauty of naming that magnificent emotion "love"— for it was then that for her, indeed, "love called love"—only at that momentous occasion when the pair of lovers first looked deeply into each other’s eyes.

Not only was the emotion labeled, but the feeling itself was also brought forth. The emotion resided within her deep heart; her beloved brought the emotion into her open consciousness. She finds that she still "cannot speak" about love without acknowledging the existence, the existential presence, of her beloved. For her, love and her suitor are virtually synonymous because he "snatched up" her soul at a time that it was "all faint and weak."

Second Tercet: Liberating a Weak Spirit

And placed it by thee on a golden throne,—
And that I love (O soul, we must be meek!)
Is by thee only, whom I love alone.

After liberating her faint, weak soul, her suitor raised her and set her beside him, "on a golden throne." Metaphorically, she likens the bliss of his love to a royal asset of high value—an apt comparison because of all the many references to royalty she has employed to describe her suitor.

The speaker again bestows all credit to her suitor for the being able to love as profoundly as she does. She even tells her own soul that "we must be meek." The speaker never wants to lose the humility she was blessed with. She never wants to forget that her own soul is the repository of all love.

The Brownings

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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