Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 19: "The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise"

Updated on March 28, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 19

In sonnet 18 of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker dramatically celebrated giving a lock of her hair to her belovèd, and the little drama continues with sonnet 19, as she receives a lock from him.

The two lovers exchange their locks of hair, and the speaker dramatizes a ceremony of the exchange, as she again celebrates the royalty of her lover's station and talent.

Sonnet 19

The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise;
I barter curl for curl upon that mart,
And from my poet’s forehead to my heart
Receive this lock which outweighs argosies,—
As purply black, as erst to Pindar’s eyes
The dim purpureal tresses gloomed athwart
The nine white Muse-brows. For this counterpart,
The bay-crown’s shade, Belovèd, I surmise,
Still lingers on thy curl, it is so black!
Thus, with a fillet of smooth-kissing breath,
I tie the shadows safe from gliding back,
And lay the gift where nothing hindereth;
Here on my heart, as on thy brow, to lack
No natural heat till mine grows cold in death.

Reading of Sonnet 19

Commentary

The two lovers exchange locks of hair, and the speaker makes a ceremony of the exchange as she again emphasizes the royalty of her lover's station and talent.

First Quatrain: Oration and Commemoration

The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise;
I barter curl for curl upon that mart,
And from my poet’s forehead to my heart
Receive this lock which outweighs argosies,—

As in sonnet 18, the speaker offers a bit of an oration, commemorating the exchange of locks of hair between the two lovers. She metaphorically compares the soul to a marketplace, the Rialto, an important commercial district in Venice. The speaker employs a commercial metaphor because of the trading of items that the two lovers are engaging in

The speaker then reveals that she is accepting the lock of hair from the head of her beloved with all the enthusiasm that an individual might express if she were presented with large loads of valuable cargoes from vast commercial sailing ships. Thee speaker enhances the value of that lock of hair by stating that it weighs even more than "argosies." It is even more valuable than all the cargo arriving in vast commercial vessels that travel the seas.

Second Quatrain: Purple Black

As purply black, as erst to Pindar’s eyes
The dim purpureal tresses gloomed athwart
The nine white Muse-brows. For this counterpart,
The bay-crown’s shade, Belovèd, I surmise,

In the second quatrain, the speaker emphasizes the blackness of her lover’s lock. The "curl," she claims, is so black that it is "purply black." Again, she employs the color of royalty to distinguish the high station of her talented, handsome, accomplished lover.

The speaker alludes to the ancient Greek poet, Pindar, who is considered the greatest of the nine most famous ancient Greek poets, whom she references as "the nine white Muse-brows." The speaker's lover’s lock is as significant, and he is as important to the poetry world as those Greek poets are.

First Tercet: Pindar Allusion

Still lingers on thy curl, it is so black!
Thus, with a fillet of smooth-kissing breath,
I tie the shadows safe from gliding back,

The speaker voices her assumption that "the bay-crown’s shade, Beloved / / Still lingers on the curl." The "bay-crown" refers to that most famous poet, Pindar, whose shadow-presence influences her lover’s talent through his "purpureal tresses."

The speaker insists that because of the high value she places on that black lock of hair, she will keep the lock close to her heart to keep it warm. Likely, the speaker will place it in a locket, but she exaggerates her drama by saying she is binding it with her "smooth-kissing breath" and tying "the shadows safe from gliding back."

Second Tercet: Ceremony of the Lock

And lay the gift where nothing hindereth;
Here on my heart, as on thy brow, to lack
No natural heat till mine grows cold in death.

In placing the lock next to her heart, the speaker is safe-guarding the "gift where nothing" can disturb it. Close to the speaker's heart, the lock will "lack / No natural heat" until, of course, the speaker "grows cold in death." The ceremony of the lock exchange is complete, and the love affair will then progress to the next important stage.

The Brownings

Source

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

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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