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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 32: "The first time that the sun rose on thine oath"

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 32: "The first time that the sun rose on thine oath"

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 32, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker once more struggles with her persistent lack of self-worth.

However, the speaker finally decides that by choosing to devalue her own self-worth, at the same time she is also assigning less value to her belovèd, an intolerable idea that she then attempts mightily to immediately correct.

Sonnet 32: "The first time that the sun rose on thine oath"

The first time that the sun rose on thine oath
To love me, I looked forward to the moon
To slacken all those bonds which seemed too soon
And quickly tied to make a lasting troth.
Quick-loving hearts, I thought, may quickly loathe;
And, looking on myself, I seemed not one
For such man’s love;—more like an out-of-tune
Worn viol, a good singer would be wroth
To spoil his song with, and which, snatched in haste,
Is laid down at the first ill-sounding note.
I did not wrong myself so, but I placed
A wrong on thee. For perfect strains may float
’Neath master-hands, from instruments defaced,—
And great souls, at one stroke, may do and doat.

Reading of Sonnet 32: "The first time that the sun rose on thine oath"

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 32 finds her confidence first enlarging and then shrinking again on her journey through the adventure of love.

First Quatrain: Too Soon to Endure

The first time that the sun rose on thine oath
To love me, I looked forward to the moon
To slacken all those bonds which seemed too soon
And quickly tied to make a lasting troth.

The first quatrain finds the speaker announcing that after her belovèd first pronounced his love for her, she became lodged in the sorrowful thought that this love might have come “too soon / And quickly tied” to endure for long.

The ensuing vow of love which was completed with the rising sun caused her to “look forward” to night time and the moon. She assumed that time of day would abstract her weakened possession of her new love situation.

This speaker is, of course, again doubting her ability to bring out such a love from this high-stationed man.

The powerful feelings of negative self-worth seems to be permeating and leading her heart's feelings and her head's thought processes.

Second Quatrain: Come Quickly, Leave Quickly

Quick-loving hearts, I thought, may quickly loathe;
And, looking on myself, I seemed not one
For such man’s love;—more like an out-of-tune
Worn viol, a good singer would be wroth

The speaker believes that if love comes too quickly, it will then be apt to leave just as quickly. She thus also emphasizes her sad thought that she does not believe she is entirely worthy of “such man’s love.”

The speaker then likens herself to some “out-of-tune / Worn viol,” which implies that she possesses not enough gifts to play along side such “a good singer.”

The speaker deems that the good singer, represented in her accomplished poet/lover, “would be wroth,” to let her accompany him. She suspects that her own lack of talent would besmirch that of her lover’s brilliant talents.

First Tercet: An Out-of-Tune Instrument

To spoil his song with, and which, snatched in haste,
Is laid down at the first ill-sounding note.
I did not wrong myself so, but I placed

The speaker therefore suggests that her belovèd might have made a rash decision in picking her as his partner; thus, she thinks that she will be sent away, “at the first ill-sounding note.” However, the speaker then immediately shifts her gaze.

As the speaker still clings to her assessment of herself as an “out-of-tuned viol,” she goes on to maintain that she has not incorrectly evaluated herself, but she does believe that she has been mistaken about her lover’s possessions of knowledge, strength, and capability.

Second Tercet: Clinging to Inferiority

A wrong on thee. For perfect strains may float
’Neath master-hands, from instruments defaced,—
And great souls, at one stroke, may do and doat.

Despite the fact that the speaker may be an out-of-tune viol, her belovèd, who is a skillful master may possess the delicious ability of heralding forth from her damaged instrument, “perfect strains.” The speaker's belovèd after all possesses “master-hands.” She determines her acceptance, with a sufficient and thoroughly axiomatic bit of wit, as she states that, “great souls, at one stroke, may do and doat.”

The speaker’s timid thought and evaluation of her own inferiority remains so entrenched that she always seems to manage to cling to it. The speaker implies that the great souls, who are capable of achieving great things, also possess the talent for “doat[ing]” on the things they love, despite any lack of worthiness those things may possess.

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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