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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 26: "I lived with visions for my company"

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

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 26: "I lived with visions for my company"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 26, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, dramatizes the marvelous nature of reality as opposed to the fantasy world of daydreaming. The speaker has discovered that no matter how wonderfully her own imagination creates, it cannot complete with the reality that God grants.

The speaker's life had been closed off from the larger world of people and ideas. As her fantasy dreams began to fade, however, she was fortunate enough to find better dreams that became reality, as her soulmate entered her life.

Sonnet 26: "I lived with visions for my company"

I lived with visions for my company
Instead of men and women, years ago,
And found them gentle mates, nor thought to know
A sweeter music than they played to me.
But soon their trailing purple was not free
Of this world’s dust, their lutes did silent grow,
And I myself grew faint and blind below
Their vanishing eyes. Then THOU didst come—to be,
Belovèd, what they seemed. Their shining fronts,
Their songs, their splendors (better, yet the same,
As river-water hallowed into fonts),
Met in thee, and from out thee overcame
My soul with satisfaction of all wants:
Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.

Reading of Sonnet 26: "I lived with visions for my company"

Commentary

The speaker is dramatizing the difference between her early fantasy world and the world of reality as now represented by her belovèd.

First Quatrain: Imagination for Company

I lived with visions for my company
Instead of men and women, years ago,
And found them gentle mates, nor thought to know
A sweeter music than they played to me.

The speaker recalls that she once spent her time in the company of "visions," instead of real, flesh-and-blood people. She is, no doubt, referring to the authors whose works she had read, studied, and translated.

The speaker found their company very pleasant and did not ever think to desire any other kind of relationship. Her lack of self-esteem likely rendered her somewhat helpless, making her think that all she deserved was this completely isolated life.

The speaker has many times reported on her isolated life. She lived alone and did not seek a human relationship; in her personal sadness, she suffered, but she also assuaged that sadness with literature, enjoying the association of the thoughts and ideas of those literary giants.

Second Quatrain: Perfection Showing Its Flaws

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But soon their trailing purple was not free
Of this world’s dust, their lutes did silent grow,
And I myself grew faint and blind below
Their vanishing eyes. Then THOU didst come—to be,

At first, the speaker thought that such company would sustain her in perpetuity, but she ultimately found that their supposed perfections began to show their flaws: "their trailing purple was not free / Of this world's dust, their lutes did silent grow."

The utter royalty of the kings and queens of letters started to fade, and their music started to fall on ears grown too satisfied and jaded to continue enjoying those works. She even found herself becoming diminished as she lost interest in that earlier company.

First Tercet: The Belovèd Enters

Belovèd, what they seemed. Their shining fronts,
Their songs, their splendors (better, yet the same,
As river-water hallowed into fonts),

Fortunately for the speaker, her belovèd entered her life, and he became the reality that showed the less glorious fantasy behind what she had earlier constructed. The imagined relationships with the authors of literary works faded as the reality of a flesh-and-blood poet filled her life.

The beauty and glimmering presence of magical literary friends flowed through the speaker’s life as "river water hallowed into fonts." She had modeled her life on the ephemeral glory of thoughts and ideas as they appeared in poems and art.

Second Tercet: Metaphysical Beauty and Reality

Met in thee, and from out thee overcame
My soul with satisfaction of all wants:
Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.

All of the metaphysical beauty coupled itself with the thoughts and dreams of a poet and combined, rolling itself into the reality of her belovèd. His love for her came to represent everything she had ever wanted; he filled "[her] soul with satisfaction of all wants." When he came into her life, he brought fruition of her earlier dreams and fantasies.

Despite the stunning dreams that she had allowed to soothe her suffering soul earlier in her life, she can now aver, "God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame." Again, she acknowledges that her belovèd is a gift from God.

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

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