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

Updated on March 28, 2018
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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

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 26

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 26" from 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
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

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

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

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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