Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 15 - Owlcation - Education
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 15

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 15

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 15" from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker is once again on the edge of doubt. She has lived with a gloomy countenance for so long that she is reluctant to change it to one of sunshine and gaiety, even as her belovèd apparently chides her for the melancholy.

Sonnet 15

Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear
Too calm and sad a face in front of thine;
For we two look two ways, and cannot shine
With the same sunlight on our brow and hair.
On me thou lookest with no doubting care,
As on a bee shut in a crystalline;
Since sorrow hath shut me safe in love's divine,
And to spread wing and fly in the outer air
Were most impossible failure, if I strove
To fail so. But I look on thee—on thee—
Beholding, besides love, the end of love,
Hearing oblivion beyond memory;
As one who sits and gazes from above,
Over the rivers to the bitter sea.

Reading of Sonnet 15

Commentary

The speaker in Sonnet 15 concentrates on her ambiguous facial expressions that have yet to catch up with her overflowing heart.

First Quatrain: A Solemn Expression

Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear
Too calm and sad a face in front of thine;
For we two look two ways, and cannot shine
With the same sunlight on our brow and hair.

Addressing her belovèd, the speaker begs him not to worry over her solemn expression. She has experienced great difficulty accepting this love relationship, in part because of her penchant for melancholy. She has suffered physically and mentally for so long that it has become a part of her character and continues to disfigure her face.

She laments that she cannot change her facial expression so quickly, even with the shining example of her brilliant lover before her. She dramatically asserts that because the two of them each "look two ways," they "cannot shine / With the same sunlight" on their faces.

Second Quatrain: A Transformative State

On me thou lookest with no doubting care,
As on a bee shut in a crystalline;
Since sorrow hath shut me safe in love's divine,
And to spread wing and fly in the outer air

The speaker avers that he is able to look at her with great excitement and fervor without doubt or perturbation because he is as content as if he were observing "a bee in a crystalline." But for her, the experience is still in a transformative state.

She has been engulfed in "sorrow" for such an extended period of time that she feels she is still "shut [ ] safe in love’s divine." Thus, still somewhat paralyzed by the full prospect of love, her unexercised limbs are still incapable of functioning well.

First Tercet: A Metaphorical Bird

Were most impossible failure, if I strove
To fail so. But I look on thee—on thee—
Beholding, besides love, the end of love,

The speaker invokes the metaphor of a bird flying or perhaps a bee that would "spread wing and fly," but she claims that if she tried to "fly," she would crash in failure. Such a failure would be so odious that she calls it a "most impossible failure." And she insists that she does not dare "fail so."

When she looks at her belovèd, she sees such pure love that she thinks she sees through eternity to the "end of love"—not the stoppage of love but the goal of love, or the result that keeps her somewhat cautious.

Second Tercet: Transported by Love

Hearing oblivion beyond memory;
As one who sits and gazes from above,
Over the rivers to the bitter sea.

The speaker senses in her lover’s look a perfection of love that allows her not only to see but hear "oblivion beyond memory." She seems to be transported to a height from which she can observe the phenomena below. She can see "the rivers [flowing] to the bitter sea." The sea remains "bitter" for now, but with all those rivers feeding it, she senses that one day she will look on it with kinder, more confident eyes.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

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