Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 23

Updated on June 18, 2018
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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

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 23

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 23" from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker dramatizes the ever-growing confidence and profound love the speaker is enjoying with her belovèd. She is responding to a love letter from her lover with her usual dazzling, amazement that he can love her so genuinely. The speaker is finally accepting the still a bit unbelievable fact that she is loved very deeply by this incredible man, whom she still holds in such high esteem.

Sonnet 23

Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead,
Wouldst thou miss any life in losing mine?
And would the sun for thee more coldly shine
Because of grave-damps falling round my head?
I marvelled, my Beloved, when I read
Thy thought so in the letter. I am thine—
But . . . so much to thee? Can I pour thy wine
While my hands tremble ? Then my soul, instead
Of dreams of death, resumes life's lower range.
Then, love me, Love! look on me—breathe on me!
As brighter ladies do not count it strange,
For love, to give up acres and degree,
I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange
My near sweet view of Heaven, for earth with thee!

Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 23

Commentary

The speaker is responding to a sweet love letter from her dear belovèd.

First Quatrain: Framing a Question

Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead,
Wouldst thou miss any life in losing mine?
And would the sun for thee more coldly shine
Because of grave-damps falling round my head?

Beginning with a simple question, the speaker asks, "Is it indeed so?" Next, she supplies the idea that prompts her inquiry, but then appends two additional questions. She is asking her lover if it is really true that he would miss her if she died.

But the speaker dramatizes this simple notion by asking her questions in such a vivid manner. She wonders, "would the sun for thee more coldly shine / Because of grave-damps falling round my head?"

The speaker may be echoing her lover’s words, but she enhances them by placing them in question form. The eerie image of "grave-damps falling" around her head evokes the mighty contrast between her imagined situation in a coffin and her moving about live upon the earth.

Second Quatrain: Filled with Wonder

I marvelled, my Beloved, when I read
Thy thought so in the letter. I am thine—
But . . . so much to thee? Can I pour thy wine
While my hands tremble ? Then my soul, instead

Directly addressing her lover, the speaker reveals that she was filled with wonder as she "read / Thy thought so in the letter." Thus, the speaker then is creating her sonnet in response to her lover’s effusions in the love-letter, which reveals that the two are at the height of their passion. The speaker has finally accepted that she is loved very deeply by this man, but she still can be overcome with emotion when he speaks to her from his heart. She says those delicious words, "I am thine."

However, the speaker then finds herself in awe that she could mean so much to him. She lets him know that his admission has touched her so deeply that she is trembling: "Can I pour your wine / While my hands tremble?"

Again, the speaker dramatizes her avowal by placing it in a question. This emphasi assumes to communicate her still amazement at her luck in love.

First Tercet: Unique Love

Of dreams of death, resumes life's lower range.
Then, love me, Love! look on me—breathe on me!
As brighter ladies do not count it strange,

The speaker, accepting that the answers to her questions are positive, reports that because of the unique love, she is touched to the soul and wants more than ever to live.

Even though the speaker has dreamed of death, she now insists she will dream of life because now, her soul "resumes life’s lower range."

The speaker then effuses, "Then, love, Love! Look on me—breathe on me!" Her passion is rousing her language; she wants to make him know how strongly her ardor has become.

Second Tercet: Earthbound for the Sake of Love

For love, to give up acres and degree,
I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange
My near sweet view of Heaven, for earth with thee!

The speaker then asserts that as those women, who are "brighter" than she is, are willing to give up possessions and station for love, she is willing to "yield the grave for thy sake." Instead of dying and giving up the miseries of earth for her "near sweet view of Heaven," she is willing to remain earthbound for his sake.

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's the rime scheme in Barrett Browning's Sonnet 23?

    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" at https://hubpages.com/humanities/Rhyme-vs-Rime-An-U...

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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