Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 21

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 21

Say over again, and yet once over again,
That thou dost love me. Though the word repeated
Should seem “a cuckoo-song," as thou dost treat it,
Remember, never to the hill or plain,
Valley and wood, without her cuckoo-strain
Comes the fresh Spring in all her green completed.
Belovèd, I, amid the darkness greeted
By a doubtful spirit-voice, in that doubt’s pain
Cry, “Speak once more—thou lovest!” Who can fear
Too many stars, though each in heaven shall roll,
Too many flowers, though each shall crown the year?
Say thou dost love me, love me, love me—toll
The silver iterance!—only minding, Dear,
To love me also in silence with thy soul.

Reading of Sonnet 21


Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s speaker in “Sonnet 21” from Sonnets from the Portuguese seems to be speaking in a giddy manner, somewhat out of character for her.

The speaker is begging her lover to continue his repetition of the words she had long craved to hear. She is in the process of changing her attitude from timid to self-assuredness.

The speaker is becoming habituated to listening to her beloved tell her," I love you." Thus she is instructing him to tell her repeatedly those beautiful words.

First Quatrain: “Say over again, and yet once over again”

The speaker gently commands her beloved friend to repeat to her “over again, and yet once over again / That thou dost love me.”

Even though the speaker confesses that the repetition of that same sentiment over and over might be perceived as somewhat giddy and as repetitious as the cuckoo bird’s proclamations, she justifies her demand by averring that nature is filled with glorious repetition.

The speaker reminds her beloved and also herself that the season of spring never arrives until the hills and meadows are spread out with the same green that the valleys and woods also display and with the same nutty cuckoo’s repeated plaints.

Second Quatrain: “Valley and wood, without her cuckoo-strain”

The speaker compares the world of humanity to the realm of nature to support and even make right human nature’s at times over-sensitivity, especially the speaker's own penchant for that quality.

The speaker has simply become more and more delighted in listening to her lover repeat his love for her. She has at last become capable of believing his words.

The speaker therefore continues in the new-found state of her frivolity in demanding that he continue to repeat his declaration of love for her.

Then the speaker lets him know that sometime during nighttime, her old evil spirits had once again caused her to doubt. Thus, “in that doubt’s pain,” she became constrained to demand of him that he repeat those beautiful words of love again for her to hear.

Therefore, with this episode in mind, the speaker vehemently demands: “Speak once more—thou lovest!”

First Tercet: “Cry, Speak once more—thou lovest! Who can fear”

After her confession, the speaker poses an inquiry that further makes her feel more comfortable in making her demand to hear those words from the lips of her beloved. She insists that people would not likely be against "too many stars" or even "too many flowers."

It is thus that the speaker feels there is no problem with her asking him to repeat his declamation. She, in fact, wants to hear it repeatedly. As stars and flowers repeat their present in the cosmos, her little demand will leave little intrusion.

Second Tercet: “Say thou dost love me, love me, love me—toll”

The second tercet finds the speaker dramatizing the repetition as she repeats it herself: “Say thou dost love me, love me, love me.”

The speaker describes the repetition as a “silver iterance,” which asserts its quality as that of a bell. The speaker has come to strongly desire to hear the "toll" of her lover's “silver iterance!”

The speaker then offers a startling yet supremely appropriate command. As much as she loves hearing aloud the words of love, she craves even more that her beloved, "love me also in silence with thy soul.”

Without her lover also loving her quietly in his soul, that love would be like a husk of corn with the grain. Hearing the word is wonderful, but intuiting the love in the soul is sublime.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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