Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 19

Updated on October 6, 2017
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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



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.

First Quatrain: “The soul's Rialto hath its merchandise”

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: “As purply black, as erst to Pindar's eyes”

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: “Still lingers on thy curl, it so black!”

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: “And lay the gift where nothing hindereth”

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.

Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 19

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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