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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 22: "When our two souls stand up erect and strong"

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 22: "When our two souls stand up erect and strong"

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 22, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, is contrasting the heaven created by the soul force of the lovers with the contrary state of worldly existence. In order to elevate this growing relationship to its highest pinnacle, the speaker attempts to describe the wedding of souls.

Instead of the mere, mundane marriage of minds and physical encasements as most ordinary human beings emphasize, this speaker in concerned with eternal verities. This speaker is engaged in creating a world within a world wherein the spiritual is more real than the material level of existence.

Sonnet 22: "When our two souls stand up erect and strong"

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovèd,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

Reading of Sonnet 22: "When our two souls stand up erect and strong"

Commentary

Sonnet 22 finds the speaker growing ever more fanciful as she paints a haven for the loving couple whose union is strengthened by soul force.

First Quatrain: Fancying a Wedding

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong

The speaker dramatizes the couple’s wedding, fancying that their souls are standing and meeting as they draw closer and closer together in the silence facing each other. The couple resembles two angels who will merge into one. But before they merge, she allows the tips of their wings to "break into fire / At either curvèd point."

The speaker's other-worldly depiction at first seems to imply that she sees their love as not belonging to this world, but the reader must remember that this speaker’s exaggeration often lowers expectations as much as it elevates them. This speaker is convinced that the two lovers are soul-mates; thus, she would stage their marriage first at the soul level, where nothing on earth could ever detract from their union.

Second Quatrain: United by Soul

Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song

The speaker then asks the question, what could anyone or anything earthly do to hamper their happiness? Because they are united through soul force, even on earth they can "be here contented." Indeed, they could be content anywhere, for as the marriage vow declares, "what God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6).

The speaker commands her belovèd to "think"; she wants him to reflect on the efficacy of remaining earth-bound in their love relationship. If they allow themselves to ascend too high, "the angels would press on us and aspire / To drop some golden orb of perfect song / Into our deep, dear silence."

First Tercet: Working Out Karma

Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovèd,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

The speaker implies that they are not ready for total perfection; they must remain earthbound and contend with whatever circumstance men might cause.

The "unfit / Contrarious moods of men" will have to be rebuked; thus, they must remain "on earth" in order to vie with them. However, the speaker is certain that the couple will be able to overcome all adversity offered by others, and their love will cause their adversaries to "recoil away."

Second Tercet: Better Together

And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

The speaker’s faith in the united soul force of the two lovers deems them "pure spirits," and they will endure like a strong, self-sustaining island. Their love will be "a place to stand and love in for a day." Even though around them the darkness of earthly, worldly existence will trudge on, for them their haven will endure indefinitely.

The Brownings

The Brownings

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the summary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 22?

Answer: Sonnet 22 finds the speaker growing ever more fanciful as she paints a haven for the loving couple, whose union is strengthened by soul force.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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