Updated date:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 22

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 22

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 22" from 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,
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

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

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

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

Related Articles