Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 20

Updated on June 18, 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 20

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 20" from Sonnets from the Portuguese remembers that just year ago, she would not have been able to imagine that love so important as her belovèd would break the chains of sorrow with which has been bound for many years.

This sonnet finds the speaker in a pensive mood, dramatizing her awe at the difference a year has made in her life. The speaker is gaining confidence in her ability to attract and return the kind of love that she has yearned for but heretofore considered herself unworthy of possessing.

Sonnet 20

Beloved, my Beloved, when I think
That thou wast in the world a year ago,
What time I sate alone here in the snow
And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink
No moment at thy voice ... but, link by link,
Went counting all my chains, as if that so
They never could fall off at any blow
Struck by thy possible hand ... why, thus I drink
Of life’s great cup of wonder! Wonderful,
Never to feel thee thrill the day or night
With personal act or speech,—nor ever cull
Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull,
Who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.

Reading of Sonnet 20

Commentary

Sonnet 20 finds the speaker in a pensive mood, dramatizing her awe at the difference a year has made in her life.

First Quatrain: The Difference a Year Makes

Beloved, my Beloved, when I think
That thou wast in the world a year ago,
What time I sate alone here in the snow
And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink

The speaker is reminiscing about her feelings "a year ago" before she had met her belovèd. She sat watching the snow that remained without his "footprint." The silence surrounding her lingered without "thy voice."

The speaker is structuring her remarks in when/then clauses; she will be saying, "when" this was true, "then" something else was true.

Thus, in the first quatrain she is beginning her clause with "when I think" and what she is thinking about is the time before her belovèd and she had met. She continues the "when" clause until the last line of the second quatrain.

Second Quatrain: Never to be Broken Chains

No moment at thy voice ... but, link by link,
Went counting all my chains, as if that so
They never could fall off at any blow
Struck by thy possible hand ... why, thus I drink

Continuing to recount what she did and how she felt before her lover came into her life, she reminds her reader/listener that she was bound by "all my chains" which she "went counting" and believing would never be broken.

The speaker makes it clear that her belovèd has, in fact, been responsible for breaking those chains of pain and sorrow that kept her bound and weeping.

The speaker then moves into the "then" construction, averring "why, thus I drink / Of life’s great cup of wonder!" At this point, she is simply experiencing the awe of wonder that she should be so fortunate to have her belovèd strike those metaphorical blows against the chains of sorrow that kept her in misery.

First Tercet: Near Incredulous

Of life’s great cup of wonder! Wonderful,
Never to feel thee thrill the day or night
With personal act or speech,—nor ever cull

The speaker then expounds on what she had not been able to foretell as she remained unable to ever "feel thee thrill the day or night / With personal act or speech." The speaker is nearly incredulous that she could have remained without the love that has become so important to her.

Second Tercet: Dull as Atheists

Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull,
Who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.

The speaker adds another part of her astonishing "wonder": that she was not able to "cull / Some prescience" that he might exist. She sees now that she was "as dull" as "atheists," those unimaginative souls, "who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight." The speaker's belovèd is such a marvelous work of nature that she imbues him with a certain divine stature, and she considers herself somewhat "dull" for not being about to guess that such a one existed.

As atheists are unable to surmise of Supreme Intelligence guiding the ordered cosmos, she was incapable of imagining that one such as her belovèd would come along and free her from her self-induced coma of sadness.

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

  • What is the reason for Elizabeth Browning's sonnets?

    Love.

  • Why did Elizabeth Browning write her Sonnets from the Portuguese?

    To express her love for Robert Browning.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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