Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 20

Updated on September 22, 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


Sonnet XX

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 XX


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.

First Quatrain: “Belovèd, my Belovèd, when I think”

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: “No moment at thy voice, but, link by link”

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: “Of life's great cup of wonder! Wonderful”

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: “Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white”

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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