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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 28: "My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!"

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 28: "My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 28, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, dramatizes the speaker’s simple act of taking a bundle of love letters, loosening the string that holds them, and then reporting hints from each letter. Each one on which the speaker chooses to report reveals a step in the growing closeness of the two lovers from friendship to soul-mates.

Sonnet 28: "My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!"

My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which lose the string
And let them drop down on my knee to-night.
This said,—he wished to have me in his sight
Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand … a simple thing,
Yet I wept for it!—this, … the paper’s light …
Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed
As if God’s future thundered on my past.
This said, I am thine—and so its ink has paled
With lying at my heart that beat too fast.
And this … O Love, thy words have ill availed
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!

Reading of Sonnet 28: "My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!"

Commentary

The speaker is looking at the love letters from her beloved and reacting to each stage in the development of their relationship.

First Quatrain: Living Letters

My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which lose the string
And let them drop down on my knee to-night.

The speaker exclaims, "My letters!" She has taken her bundle of letters in her hands and begins to report her reaction to their very existence. She avers that they are, in fact, nothing more than "dead paper, mute and white!" But because the speaker knows the history they hold, she announces that they appear "alive and quivering."

Of course, it is her trembling hands that make them "quiver," and she has untied the string that holds the letters together in a bundle; her "tremulous hands" then allow those letter to "drop down on her knee."

Second Quatrain: Each Letter Speaks

This said,—he wished to have me in his sight
Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand … a simple thing,
Yet I wept for it!—this, … the paper’s light …

In the second quatrain, the speaker begins to report what each letter says. The first one she selects tells her that her lover "wished to have me in his sight / Once, as a friend." Thus, in the beginning, the two experienced friendship, and she was delighted that he simply wanted to see her.

In the next letter she selects, he tells her that he wants to come and "touch [her] hand," and this day was "in spring." The romance of these image choices are rife with possibility, but she deems the situation, "a simple thing." On the other hand, simple though it might be, it makes her weep.

First Tercet: What God Adjudicates

Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed
As if God’s future thundered on my past.
This said, I am thine—and so its ink has paled

The next letter, whose paper is "light," tells her, "Dear, I love thee," to which she has a tremendously passionate reaction: "I sank and quailed / As if God’s future thundered on my past."

As the sonnet sequence has revealed, this speaker has lived a solitary, sorrowful life. The speaker's past now is being adjudicated by God, Who is pronouncing that her future will be the opposite of her past.

Second Tercet: Next to a Beating Heart

With lying at my heart that beat too fast.
And this … O Love, thy words have ill availed
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!

And the next letter tells her that he was hers. The speaker has treasured this one so dearly that she claims "its ink has paled / with lying at my heart that beat too fast." Figuratively, the speaker has kept this letter next to her beating heart, which has metaphorically lightened the ink.

The final letter excites the speaker so much that she cannot bring herself to repeat any part of it or even report a hint of what it says. The overall progression of the sonnet leaves the reader perfectly satisfied with the conclusion, despite the fact that she says not a word about what the letter held.

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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