Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 25: "A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne"

Updated on March 25, 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 25

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 25" from Sonnets from the Portuguese dramatizes the transformation of the speaker’s "heavy heart" of misery into a welcoming home of life and love. She credits her belovèd for her ability to transcend her earlier sorrows.

The speaker continues to gain confidence in herself and the possibility that she can be loved by one whose status she deems so far above her own. She began in utter denial of any such luck, but as the muses, prays, and contemplates the motives and the behavior of her beloved, she becomes more convinced of his genuine affection for her.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's speaker revisits her former sadness and melancholy in order to contrast that earlier "heavy heart" with the light heartedness she now has begun to enjoy because of the genuine feelings she now detects in her belovèd.

Sonnet 25

A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne
From year to year until I saw thy face,
And sorrow after sorrow took the place
Of all those natural joys as lightly worn
As the stringed pearls, each lifted in its turn
By a beating heart at dance-time. Hopes apace
Were changed to long despairs, till God’s own grace
Could scarcely lift above the world forlorn
My heavy heart. Then thou didst bid me bring
And let it drop adown thy calmly great
Deep being! Fast it sinketh, as a thing
Which its own nature doth precipitate,
While thine doth close above it, mediating
Betwixt the stars and the unaccomplished fate.

Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 25

Commentary

The speaker is revisiting her former sorrow to contrast her earlier "heavy heart" with the light heartedness she now enjoys because of her belovèd.

First Quatrain: A Storehouse of Metaphors for Misery

A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne
From year to year until I saw thy face,
And sorrow after sorrow took the place
Of all those natural joys as lightly worn

The speaker addressing her belovèd recalls that before she "saw [his] face," she was afflicted with a "heavy heart." She suffered a long line of sorrows instead of "all those natural joys" that young woman usually experience so easily.

This speaker has so often alluded to her sorrow that the reader is not surprised that it appears again for dramatization. Her storehouse of metaphors that elucidate her misery is large and varied.

Second Quatrain: Sorrows Like a String of Pearls

As the stringed pearls, each lifted in its turn
By a beating heart at dance-time. Hopes apace
Were changed to long despairs, till God’s own grace
Could scarcely lift above the world forlorn

The speaker compares that long life of "sorrow after sorrow" to a string of pearls and supplies the image of a young woman at a dance, who fingers her pearls as she waits with rapidly "beating heart" to be asked to dance.

The speaker sees herself as a wallflower and as that metaphoric self stood waiting to be chosen, her hopes were dashed and "were changed to long despairs." She remained alone and lonely until her belovèd mercifully through the grace of God rescued her.

First Tercet: Love Warm and Soothing

My heavy heart. Then thou didst bid me bring
And let it drop adown thy calmly great
Deep being! Fast it sinketh, as a thing

Inordinately, the speaker was so distressed with her burden of a "heavy heart" that it was difficult even for "God’s own grace" to "lift above the world" that "forlorn" dejected heart. But fortunately her belovèd appeared. He beckoned her, accepted her, and welcomed her to "let it drop adown thy calmly great /deep being!"

The speaker's gentleman friend's loving affection was like a warm soothing pool of fresh water into which she could drop her painful "heavy heart" to have it washed clean of its sorrowful burden. Her heavy heart sank quickly to bottom of his welcoming comfort as if it belonged in that very place.

Second Tercet: Adoring Care

Which its own nature doth precipitate,
While thine doth close above it, mediating
Betwixt the stars and the unaccomplished fate.

The speaker's emotional self was thus comforted by her belovèd’s adoring care; she felt that she had come home for the first time. His love enclosed her and lifted her to where she could sense her destiny as majestic as a celestial being "mediating / Betwixt the stars and the unaccomplished fate."

The speaker has offered her belovèd a dramatic celebration of her change of heart and credited him with transforming her "heavy heart" into a light sensory gift that has become conducive of heaven.

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

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      • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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        Linda Sue Grimes 14 months ago from U.S.A.

        Thank you, Coffeequeeen. This is one of her less widely anthologized sonnets. But the entire sequence of 44 poems in Sonnets from the Portuguese is a masterpiece. Her skill with the Petrarchan sonnet is outstanding. She offered Robert Browning the best possible tribute with this sonnet sequence. They enjoyed a love for the ages . . .

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 14 months ago from Norfolk, England

        Oh that's a beautiful sonnet, and I enjoyed reading your analysis of it.

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