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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 17

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 17

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

Sonnet 17

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

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."

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the genre of Sonnet 17 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

Answer: The genre of Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 17 is a poem, specifically, it is a sonnet.

Question: What does the word “Antidotes” refer to?

Answer: "Antidotes / Of medicated music" refers to the poetry of the speaker's lover.

Question: What is the tone of Sonnet 17 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

Answer: As in all the other 43 sonnets in Barrett Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese," the speaker in Sonnet 17 is musing with an anticipatory melancholy.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes