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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese: Sonnets 16, 17, and 18

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 16: "And yet, because thou overcomest so"

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 16, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, dramatizes her nearly complete acceptance of the love from her "noble" suitor. She creates a colorful metaphor to elucidate her feelings.

Sonnet 16: "And yet, because thou overcomest so"

And yet, because thou overcomest so,
Because thou art more noble and like a king,
Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling
Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow
Too close against thine heart henceforth to know
How it shook when alone. Why, conquering
May prove as lordly and complete a thing
In lifting upward, as in crushing low!
And as a vanquished soldier yields his sword
To one who lifts him from the bloody earth,
Even so, Belovèd, I at last record,
Here ends my strife. If thou invite me forth,
I rise above abasement at the word.
Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth.

Reading of Sonnet 16: "And yet, because thou overcomest so"

Commentary

The speaker can finally be seen as capitulating to the all consuming love that she has tried to deny herself, allowing herself only a speck of doubt.

First Quatrain: Overcoming Fears and Doubts

And yet, because thou overcomest so,
Because thou art more noble and like a king,
Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling
Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow

The speaker, picking up from prior adversity, can now give in to her belovèd’s advances because he has, at last, been able to overcome her fears and doubts. She again likens him to royalty: "thou art more noble and like a king, / Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling / Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow."

Her lover has the kingly powers of protecting even a doubtful heart such as her own. He can place his royal purple cape around her shoulders and affect the very beating of her heart.

Second Quatrain: A Fearful Heart

Too close against thine heart henceforth to know
How it shook when alone. Why, conquering
May prove as lordly and complete a thing
In lifting upward, as in crushing low!

As her heart beats close to his, the speaker finds it difficult to grasp that it once felt so afraid of life and living when it found itself solitary and isolated. She has discovered that she can, in fact, imagine herself lifted from her self-imposed prison of melancholy. She can succumb to upward mobility as readily as she did to the downward spiral, "as in crushing low!"

First Tercet: A Bizarre Comparison

And as a vanquished soldier yields his sword
To one who lifts him from the bloody earth,
Even so, Belovèd, I at last record,

The speaker then dramatically and bizarrely compares her situation metaphorically to a "soldier" who surrenders in battle as "one who lifts him from the bloody earth." The enemy becomes nurturing once his foe has been vanquished. But for her, the battle was very real, and thus the metaphor remains quite apt. Thus she can finally and completely surrender.

Second Tercet: Reserving a Space to Doubt

Here ends my strife. If thou invite me forth,
I rise above abasement at the word.
Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth.

The speaker's handing over of weapons and defensive mechanisms is accompanied by her revelation that "here ends my strife." T

rue to character, however, she must at least reserve some bit of possible future failure by stating her declaration in a conditional clause, "if thou invite me forth." She emphasizes "thou," to make it clear that her belovèd is the only one to whom she could ever say these things.

The speaker has quite likely almost one hundred per cent become convinced that he has invited her, but she still feels that she has to keep any downturn in her sights. But if he does, in fact, keep that invitation open for her, she will be able to transcend her pain and rise above all the sorrow that has kept her abased for so many years.

Once again, the speaker is giving him a great deal of power as she suggests that as her new attitude will "make thy love larger," it will also "enlarge my worth." Thus loving him will increase her own value, not in large part because, in her eyes, his value is as large as a king’s worth. His royalty will become hers.

The Brownings

The Brownings

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 17: "My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes"

In sonnet 17, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's always melancholy speaker muses on the poetics of her relationship with her poet/lover.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's speaker always retains a hint of melancholy and doubt as she journeys through her sequence of love songs to her beloved.

The speaker's charm remains subtle while always tinged with the possibility of sorrow. Even as that former sadness in which she dwelt so heavily subsides, its specter seems forever to simmer just below the surface of consciousness.

Sonnet 17: "My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes"

My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes
God set between his After and Before,
And strike up and strike off the general roar
Of the rushing worlds a melody that floats
In a serene air purely. Antidotes
Of medicated music, answering for
Mankind's forlornest uses, thou canst pour
From thence into their ears. God's will devotes
Thine to such ends, and mine to wait on thine.
How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?
A hope, to sing by gladly ? or a fine
Sad memory, with thy songs to interfuse?
A shade, in which to sing--of palm or pine?
A grave, on which to rest from singing ? Choose.

Reading of Sonnet 17

Commentary on Sonnet 17: "My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes"

In sonnet 17, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's always melancholy speaker muses on the poetics of her relationship with her poet/lover.

First Quatrain: Praise for Poetic Prowess

My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes
God set between his After and Before,
And strike up and strike off the general roar
Of the rushing worlds a melody that floats

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 17" from Sonnets from the Portuguese addresses her belovèd, asserting that he "can[ ] touch on all the notes / God set between His After and Before."

The speaker's high praise for her lover’s poetic prowess demonstrates a shift in her observation from her own lowly station to his art. Because the speaker herself is a poet, she has, no doubt, known that she must eventually address the issue that both she and her belovèd share the same avocation.

It might well be expected that she will elevate his while remaining humble about her own, and that expectation is fulfilled in this poetic offering. The speaker credits him with the ability to create worlds that make the ineffable mystery understandable to the ordinary consciousness; he is able to "strike up and strike off the general roar / Of the rushing worlds." And his talent makes them "a melody that floats."

Second Quatrain: Curing Boredom

In a serene air purely. Antidotes
Of medicated music, answering for
Mankind's forlornest uses, thou canst pour
From thence into their ears. God's will devotes

The melody "floats / In a serene air purely." Mankind will find his dramatization "medicated music," which will cure the boredom of "mankind’s forlornest uses." Her lover has the unique ability to spill his melodic strains "into their ears."

First Tercet: A Drama Sanctioned by the Divine

Thine to such ends, and mine to wait on thine.
How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?
A hope, to sing by gladly ? or a fine

The speaker asserts that her greatly talented lover’s drama is, indeed, sanctioned by the Divine, and she is motivated as she patiently expects his creations to flaunt their magic and music to her as well.

The speaker puts a complicated question to her belovèd: "How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?" In that the speaker would perfectly fulfill her position as muse, she makes clear that she will be right alongside him in his every effort to sustain his God-given abilities.

Regardless of the theme or subject, whether it be, "a hope, to sing by gladly," the speaker suggests that she will continue to praise where necessity takes her.

Second Tercet: Useful Powers of Sorrow

Sad memory, with thy songs to interfuse?
A shade, in which to sing--of palm or pine?
A grave, on which to rest from singing ? Choose.

This speaker, of course, will not relinquish her references to melancholy; thus her question continues with a set of propositions: perhaps she will offer "a fine / Sad memory." She will, of course, not be surprised that her powers of sorrow may be useful to them both in their poetic pursuits.

But the speaker also wonders if death themes might intrude at some point: "A shade, in which to sing—of palm or pine? / A grave, on which to rest from singing?" It just may be that they will both become so satisfied with their comfortable love that they will have to rely more on imagination than they had ever thought.

Thus the speaker admonishes her poetically talented belovèd that at some point they will be offered many choices, and they will at that time have to "choose."

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 18: "I never gave a lock of hair away"

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 18, "I never gave a lock of hair away," the speaker is dramatizing the simple act of giving a lock of her hair to her lover. This important relic becomes a symbol of her life and fidelity to her future husband.

Sonnet 18, "I never gave a lock of hair away," from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, follows the speaker as she muses on her feelings after having given her belovèd a lock of her hair. She emphasizes the purity of that gift because no other man has touched it.

The tentative and lonely speaker continues to create her little dramas in her developing relationship with her friend and belovèd, who happens to be a fellow poet. No doubt her belovèd, who will ultimately become her husband, appreciates her musing and feels a great sense of pleasure in having her composing for his benefit.

Sonnet 18: "I never gave a lock of hair away"

I never gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,
Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully,
I ring out to the full brown length and say
'Take it.' My day of youth went yesterday;
My hair no longer bounds to my foot's glee,
Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree,
As girls do, any more: it only may
Now shade on two pale cheeks the mark of tears,
Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside
Through sorrow's trick. I thought the funeral-shears
Would take this first, but Love is justified,—
Take it thou,---finding pure, from all those years,
The kiss my mother left here when she died.

Reading of Sonnet 18

Commentary on Sonnet 18: "I never gave a lock of hair away"

The speaker creates a little ritual for the simple act of conferring the gift of a lock of her hair to her fiancé.

First Quatrain: A Virgin Lock

I never gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,
Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully,
I ring out to the full brown length and say

The speaker claims that she has never given any other man a lock of her hair; it seems to be such a special act that she is now conferring on her friend and belovèd this special lock. She has excised a few strands that extend "to the full brown length."

The strands rest upon her "fingers," as she philosophically and spiritually dramatizes the event by saying a few words over them. The object takes on a status of a sacred relic. She is fashioning her thoughts in a prayerful manner as she handles the lock of hair.

This speaker’s discourse throughout the entire sonnet sequence portrays a searching drama, from agonizing over her miseries to proclaiming her now vast and all-encompassing affection for her belovèd. Her life has become the stuff and substance of her poetry, and she lives each dramatic act thoroughly in each moment.

Second Quatrain: Justifying the Gift

'Take it.' My day of youth went yesterday;
My hair no longer bounds to my foot's glee,
Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree,
As girls do, any more: it only may

The speaker hands the hair to her lover and commands him, "Take it." She then confesses that she is no longer young, for her younger days have flown away with "yesterday." She no longer runs and jumps and skips thus causing her hair to jostle about as she did during