Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 24

Updated on June 18, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 24

In sonnet 24 from Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s strategy 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,
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

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.

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

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

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      18 months ago from U.S.A.

      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!

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      18 months ago from Norfolk, England

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

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