Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 2 - Owlcation - Education
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 2

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 2

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 2 focuses on her growing relationship with her beloved life partner, Robert Browning. Her speaker insists that the relationship is their destiny; it is karmically determined, and therefore, nothing in this world could have kept them apart once God had issued the decree for them to come together. This beautiful thought rings down the centuries in the lives of all true loves.

Sonnet 2

But only three in all God’s universe
Have heard this word thou hast said,—Himself, beside
Thee speaking, and me listening! and replied
One of us … that was God, … and laid the curse
So darkly on my eyelids, as to amerce
My sight from seeing thee,—that if I had died,
The deathweights, placed there, would have signified
Less absolute exclusion. "Nay" is worse
From God than from all others, O my friend!
Men could not part us with their worldly jars,
Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend;
Our hands would touch for all the mountain-bars:
And, heaven being rolled between us at the end,
We should but vow the faster for the stars.

Reading of Sonnet 2

Commentary

In sonnet 2, the speaker reports that her relationship with her life-mate is granted by God, and thus, it cannot be broken or disavowed.

First Quatrain: A Private and Holy Trinity

But only three in all God’s universe
Have heard this word thou hast said,—Himself, beside
Thee speaking, and me listening! and replied
One of us … that was God, … and laid the curse

The speaker avers that in the couple’s relationship, there are only three beings who have been privy to "this word thou hast said." When her partner first told her that he loved her, she senses that God was speaking His own love for her as well.

As she excitedly but tenderly took in the meaning of the declaration of love, she realized what her lot might have become without this happy turn of events. She responds rather hesitantly, even awkwardly recalling her physical illnesses that she labels "the curse."

Second Quatrain: The Curse of the Body

So darkly on my eyelids, as to amerce
My sight from seeing thee,—that if I had died,
The deathweights, placed there, would have signified
Less absolute exclusion. "Nay" is worse

The speaker’s reference to the "curse" is an exaggeration of the earthly physical body’s many issues with the pain of having to exist in a physical body. Additionally, it might be helpful for readers to know that the poet did suffer much physical illness during her lifetime. Thus, she can rightly allow her speaker to focus on the inharmonious circumstances that have disrupted but also informed the dramatic issues infusing her poetics.

This particular "curse" that was put "[s]o darkly on [her] eyelids" might have hampered her ability to see her beloved. Even if she had died, her separation from him would have been no worse then her inability to see him in this life.

First Tercet: God's No

From God than from all others, O my friend!
Men could not part us with their worldly jars,
Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend;

The speaker then truthfully responds, "‘Nay’ is worse / / From God than from all others, O my friend!" If God’s answer to a mortal’s most ardent prayer is a resounding no, then that supplicant will suffer more than being turned down by a mere fellow mortal. The suffering is likely to continue until that deluded soul finally reaches emancipation, thereby understanding all.

But by good fortune, God brought this pair together, and thus, "Men could not part us with their worldly jars, / Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend." The speaker is echoing the marriage vow: "what God hath joined together, let no man put asunder." Thus, the speaker is asserting that the bond that rendered her happiest on this earthly plane of being is the one with her beloved partner and future husband.

Second Tercet: Ordained by God

Our hands would touch for all the mountain-bars:
And, heaven being rolled between us at the end,
We should but vow the faster for the stars.

The speaker then reveals that she has confidence that her union with her beloved is ordained by God. With such assurance, she knows that even if "mountain-bars" tried to separate them, their "hands would touch."

So completely confident is she that can declare that even if after death, if heaven tried to disrupt in any way or intrude in their union, "We should but vow the faster for the stars."

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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