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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 32

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 32

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 32” from her classic 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
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"

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

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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