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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 33

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 33

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 33" from her classic Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker encourages her lover to call her by her childhood "pet-name," because it reminds her of a happy time in her life.

Sonnet 33

Yes, call me by my pet-name! let me hear
The name I used to run at, when a child,
From innocent play, and leave the cowslips piled,
To glance up in some face that proved me dear
With the look of its eyes. I miss the clear
Fond voices which, being drawn and reconciled
Into the music of Heaven’s undefiled,
Call me no longer. Silence on the bier,
While I call God—call God!—So let thy mouth
Be heir to those who are now exanimate.
Gather the north flowers to complete the south,
And catch the early love up in the late.
Yes, call me by that name,—and I, in truth,
With the same heart, will answer and not wait.

Reading of Sonnet 33

Commentary

The speaker is reliving a happy event of her childhood after her belovèd calls her by her childhood nickname.

First Quatrain: A Memory from Childhood

Yes, call me by my pet-name! let me hear
The name I used to run at, when a child,
From innocent play, and leave the cowslips piled,
To glance up in some face that proved me dear

The speaker addresses her belovèd; she exclaims, "Yes, call me by my pet-name!"—which indicates that he has, perhaps out-of-the-blue, called her by that name. Her reaction seems to surprise her, and she encourages him to continue to call her by that name.

The surprised speaker remembers that as a child a family member (or some other person whom she loved and respected) would call her by her pet-name "from innocent play," and she would come running, "leav[ing] the cowslips piled." The speaker would look up into the pleasant face of the one who had called her and feel that she was cherished as she saw that love was beaming from the eyes of that person.

Second Quatrain: The Silence of the Departed

With the look of its eyes. I miss the clear
Fond voices which, being drawn and reconciled
Into the music of Heaven’s undefiled,
Call me no longer. Silence on the bier,

The speaker reports that she "miss[es] the clear / Fond voices." Those voices have gone to Heaven, and they "call [her] no longer." There is only "silence on the bier." The speaker drifts into her customary melancholy, decrying the silence that now emanates from the deceased.

The speaker does not identify who these "voices" are: it could be a mother, father, aunt, uncle, or any relative by whom she felt loved when they called her by her pet-name. The speaker's emphasis is on the feeling she is trying to recollect, however, not on the specific individual who engendered that fond feeling.

First Tercet: Appealing to God

While I call God—call God!—So let thy mouth
Be heir to those who are now exanimate.
Gather the north flowers to complete the south,

Continuing in the melancholy vain, the speaker reveals that with those fond voices silent in death, she called on God in her grief. She emphasizes her appeal to God by repeating, "call God—call God!"

The speaker then urges her belovèd to "let [his] mouth / Be heir to those who are now exanimate." She asks him to do as her loving relatives had done and call her by her pet-name. By taking her back to a fond past memory, her belovèd is "gather[ing] the north flowers to complete the south." She metaphorically likens direction to time: north is past, south is present.

Second Tercet: Past Pleasantry, Present Passion

And catch the early love up in the late.
Yes, call me by that name,—and I, in truth,
With the same heart, will answer and not wait.

The emotional speaker adds, "catch the early love up in the late," again drawing together her past pleasantry with the present that now holds so much love for her.

Again the speaker exhorts him, "yes, call me by that name." And she adds that she will respond to him, feeling the same love that she felt before—this love that will not allow her to procrastinate in her response to his fond gesture.

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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