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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 3

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 3

The speaker of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 3 from Sonnets from the Portuguese is contemplating the differences between her belovèd and her humble self. She continues her study of unlikely love employing the use of the Petrarchan sonnet form for the sequence. The speaker thus dramatizes her musings as they focus on her relationship with her belovèd partner.

Sonnet 3

Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!
Unlike our uses and our destinies.
Our ministering two angels look surprise
On one another, as they strike athwart
Their wings in passing. Thou, bethink thee, art
A guest for queens to social pageantries,
With gages from a hundred brighter eyes
Than tears even can make mine, to play thy part
Of chief musician. What hast thou to do
With looking from the lattice-lights at me,
A poor, tired, wandering singer, singing through
The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?
The chrism is on thine head,—on mine, the dew,—
And Death must dig the level where these agree.

Reading of Sonnet 3

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 3 is musing on how unlikely it seems that a plain singer such as herself would begin a relationship with a person who has attracted the attention and respect of royalty.

First Quatrain: Contemplating Differences

Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!
Unlike our uses and our destinies.
Our ministering two angels look surprise
On one another, as they strike athwart

The speaker begins with an excited remark. The humble speaker and her newly formed romantic partner perform very different roles in life; thus they would naturally be on the road to very different "destinies," one would assume. The speaker then paints a fantastic image wherein a couple of angels look with surprise, "On one another, as they strike athwart / / Their wings in passing."

This unusual pair of lovers possesses very different guardian angels, and those angels find themselves taken aback that this pair with such differing stations in life should come together and apparently begin to flourish in doing do. The angels' wings begin fluttering, as they questioningly peer upon the unlikely couple.

Second Quatrain: A Guest of Royalty

Their wings in passing. Thou, bethink thee, art
A guest for queens to social pageantries,
With gages from a hundred brighter eyes
Than tears even can make mine, to play thy part

The speaker reports that her new belovèd has often been "a guest for queens to social pageantries." The speaker is only a shy and retiring individual; she thus offers the contrast between her own social station and skills to that of one who has shined so brightly as to attract the acceptance into the company of royalty.

The speaker assumes that the folks he surely meets at the spectacular affairs of royalty no doubt look at him with "a hundred brighter eyes" than her own. Her tears even cannot be enough to render her eyes as bright as what he must experience at such high level social affairs.

First Tercet: Her Lowly Self

Of chief musician. What hast thou to do
With looking from the lattice-lights at me,
A poor, tired, wandering singer, singing through

The speaker then contends that unlike her lowly self, her new found love has played the role of "chief musician" at those gatherings of royalty. She, therefore, must question the notion that he would even bother to give her a second thought, after encountering the glamor and glitz of upper class events.

The speaker then puts the question to her romantic partner in order to become informed as to why one such as he would be "looking from the lattice-lights" at one such as herself. She wants to know why one who can so easily attract and associate with royalty can at the same time seem to be like a commoner, as he "lean[s] up a cypress tree," while peering up at her through her shaded-window.

Second Tercet: A Precious Oil

The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?
The chrism is on thine head,—on mine, the dew,—
And Death must dig the level where these agree.

Finally, the speaker declaims that her loved one sustains "chrism" on his head, but she possesses only "dew." The precious oil coming together with only plain dew boggles her mind; thus, she evokes the image, "Death must dig the level where these agree." On the earthly plain and in a definitely class based society, the speaker cannot conciliate the differences between herself and her beloved. She therefore suggests that she will just allow "Death" to establish the meaning and purpose of this seemingly bizarre, but happy, occurrence.

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 01, 2015:

Thank you, FIVE-DPRODUCTIONS! Really appreciate your comment. Blessings for the day.

FIVE-DPRODUCTIONS from ~WORLD WIDE ~ on October 31, 2015:

GREAT WORK

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 31, 2015:

It's not one that is widely read. Only a few of the Sonnets from the Portuguese have garnered wide-spread attention. But they are so fascinating and deeply spiritual when read all together. I will continue my commentaries on them for I do believe they are important to the world of poetry.

Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on October 31, 2015:

Good thing you're able to explain it, Linda, cos this one would've gone straight over my head!