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Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 27

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 27

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 27 from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker is again dramatizing the contrast between how her life was before she met her belovèd and how it is now that she has found the love of her life. In this sonnet, the speaker employs an allusion to the Greek mythological "Asphodel Meadows" in order to dramatize the transformation her life has undergone after meeting and growing close to her belovèd.

The speaker asserts the comparison between her life after meeting her belovèd to her former miserable state of being in order to establish herself firmly in the relationship, which she had earlier attempted to deny.

Sonnet 27

My own Belovèd, who hast lifted me
From this drear flat of earth where I was thrown,
And, in betwixt the languid ringlets, blown
A life-breath, till the forehead hopefully
Shines out again, as all the angels see,
Before thy saving kiss! My own, my own,
Who camest to me when the world was gone,
And I who looked for only God, found thee!
I find thee; I am safe, and strong, and glad.
As one who stands in dewless asphodel,
Looks backward on the tedious time he had
In the upper life,—so I, with bosom-swell,
Make witness, here, between the good and bad,
That Love, as strong as Death, retrieves as well.

Reading of Sonnet 27

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 27 is alluding to the Greek mythological Asphodel Meadows to dramatize her life's transformation after meeting her belovèd.

First Quatrain: A Cruel Life

My own Belovèd, who hast lifted me
From this drear flat of earth where I was thrown,
And, in betwixt the languid ringlets, blown
A life-breath, till the forehead hopefully

The speaker begins by addressing her belovèd directly, telling him again about how he came to her at her lowest point of depression. Her belovèd has raised the speaker from the depths of utter despair which she now describes as "this drear flat of earth where I was thrown."

The speaker's life has been so cruel to her that she felt that she was not only sinking but was also violently "thrown" to her lowest level. Even the speaker's hair had become limp and lifeless as her "languid ringlets" attested, until her lover had "blown / A life-breath" and her forehead would finally come alive with brightness.

Second Quatrain: An Infusion of Hope

Shines out again, as all the angels see,
Before thy saving kiss! My own, my own,
Who camest to me when the world was gone,
And I who looked for only God, found thee!

After the speaker's beloved had lovingly kissed her pale forehead, she then became infused with the hope that she would brighten, "as all the angels see." The speaker then exclaims and repeats, "My own, my own"; he is now her own belovèd who has entered her life at a time when there seemed to be nothing in the world for which she could go on living.

This sonnet, unfortunately, sounds a bit as if the speaker has chosen her human lover over God. The speaker reports that she sought "only God," before her belovèd’s arrival, but then unexpectedly she "found thee!" However, in earlier sonnets, this speaker has made it clear that she is thankful to God for sending her belovèd and that God knows what is appropriate for His children.

First Tercet: Celebration of Love

I find thee; I am safe, and strong, and glad.
As one who stands in dewless asphodel,
Looks backward on the tedious time he had

The speaker continues to celebrate finding her human lover, as she reports the uplifting feelings she now experiences: "I am safe, and strong, and glad." The speaker then employs the allusion to the Greek mythological positioning of souls in the afterlife, stating, "As one who stands in dewless asphodel."

The "Asphodel Meadows" are located between heaven and hell, and she thus likens herself to an individual positioned between the ultimate good and ultimate bad. As the speaker "looks backward" to her old life, she deems that time "tedious" compared to how she feels now.

Second Tercet: The Superior Action of Love

In the upper life,—so I, with bosom-swell,
Make witness, here, between the good and bad,
That Love, as strong as Death, retrieves as well.

The speaker now sees herself as one testifying that while "Death" ushers a soul to a different level of being, she has discovered that "Love" does so as well. And the speaker's reaction with a "bosom-swell" demonstrates that she is witness to the superior action of love.

The Brownings

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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