Skip to main content
Updated date:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 24: "Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning masterfully employs the Petrarchan form in her classic sonnet sequence, her tribute to her belovèd husband.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Portrait

Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Portrait

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 24: "Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife"

In sonnet 24 from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker employs a strategy that resembles the metaphysical poet’s use of the strange conceit as she compares the world’s harshness to a "clasping knife."

John Donne often dramatized with this device in his poems of seduction. He employed the ghost metaphor in "The Apparition," and he used blood in the poem, "The Flea." Both abundantly odd choices for such a poem that seeks to woo.

Sonnet 24: "Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife"

Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife,
Shut in upon itself and do no harm
In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm,
And let us hear no sound of human strife
After the click of the shutting. Life to life—
I lean upon thee, Dear, without alarm,
And feel as safe as guarded by a charm
Against the stab of worldlings, who if rife
Are weak to injure. Very whitely still
The lilies of our lives may reassure
Their blossoms from their roots, accessible
Alone to heavenly dews that drop not fewer,
Growing straight, out of man’s reach, on the hill.
God only, who made us rich, can make us poor.

Reading of Sonnet 24: "Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife"

Commentary

The speaker is comparing the negative attitudes of others to a "clasping knife" that she will simply close up to rid her love of destruction.

First Quatrain: The World's Intrusion

Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife,
Shut in upon itself and do no harm
In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm,
And let us hear no sound of human strife

The speaker engages the conceit of a "clasping knife" to refer to the "world’s sharpness" that would intrude upon the love between herself and her belovèd. Like the metaphysical poets who employed such devices, this poet follows their lead at times, engaging strange metaphors and similes to express her comparison. But this speaker allows that the world should just close itself up like that "clasping knife" so that its threat will not interfere with the love she feels for her belovèd.

The speaker begs that no "harm" come to "this close hand of love." After the knife closes to shut away the sharpness, then there is no danger. She asks for "soft and warm," without the "sound of human strife."

Second Quatrain: Putting Away Sharpness and Danger

After the click of the shutting. Life to life—
I lean upon thee, Dear, without alarm,
And feel as safe as guarded by a charm
Against the stab of worldlings, who if rife

The speaker continues the knife conceit into the second quatrain of the sonnet. After the sharpness and danger are put away, she and her belovèd will exist "without alarm," and they will be safe. They will be "guarded by a charm / Against the stab of worldlings." The speaker finds obstacles everywhere.

Read More From Owlcation

After overcoming her own inner doubts, she now has to battle the unsympathetic barbs of others. But by likening the ridicule to a "clasping knife," the speaker dramatizes her method for overcoming the negativities of other people; she will merely close them off from her consciousness.

First Tercet: Too Weak to Cause Pain

Are weak to injure. Very whitely still
The lilies of our lives may reassure
Their blossoms from their roots, accessible

The knife conceit has worked well because she is able to admit that the stabs of those worldlings are many yet they "are weak to injure." She then takes up another conceit which likens the lovers’ relationship to "the lilies of our lives" that "reassure / Their blossoms from their roots."

The roots of the flower are hidden, but they are strong and sustain the beauty of the blooms. The speaker is dramatizing the love between herself and her belovèd, averring that they possess a strong, hidden core like the flowers.

Second Tercet: Growing Out of the Reach of Humankind

Alone to heavenly dews that drop not fewer,
Growing straight, out of man’s reach, on the hill.
God only, who made us rich, can make us poor.

And the source of their love is "accessible / Alone to heavenly dews." Their love "grow[s] straight, out of man’s reach" and resembles flowers growing on a hill. Their love comes from God, and "only God, who made us rich, can make us poor." The speaker is echoing the marriage vows as she has done before in Sonnet 22: "what God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6).

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on February 09, 2017:

Thank you, Coffee! Yes, it is a fine book, great addition to any library. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's skillful craftmanship makes the sonnets a wonderful reading experience. Have a great day!

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on February 09, 2017:

I enjoyed reading your analysis. I love poetry, and this book is one I wouldn't mind in my collection.

Related Articles