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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 2: "But only three in all God’s universe"

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 2: "But only three in all God’s universe"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 2 from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, 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"

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: "But only three in all God’s universe"

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

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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

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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