Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 23

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



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.

The speaker 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 XXIII

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

First Quatrain: “Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead”

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: “I marvelled, my Belovèd, when I read”

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 emphasis assumes to communicate her still amazement at her luck in love.

First Tercet: “Of dreams of death, resumes life's lower range”

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: “For love, to give up acres and degree”

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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