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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese: Sonnet 35 and Sonnet 36

Elizabeth Barrett Browning masterfully employs the Petrarchan form in her classic sonnet sequence, her tribute to her belovèd husband.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 35: "If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange"

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 35, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, muses upon how she may react to leaving her childhood environment.

No doubt the speaker is elated at the prospect of beginning a life with the man she adores so adamantly, but as the reader has watched this speaker, it has become clear that any change in her station will cause abundant anxiety as she navigates the course of her life.

Sonnet 35: "If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange"

If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange
And be all to me? Shall I never miss
Home-talk and blessing and the common kiss
That comes to each in turn, nor count it strange,
When I look up, to drop on a new range
Of walls and floors, another home than this?
Nay, wilt thou fill that place by me which is
Filled by dead eyes too tender to know change?
That’s hardest. If to conquer love, has tried,
To conquer grief, tries more, as all things prove;
For grief indeed is love and grief beside.
Alas, I have grieved so I am hard to love.
Yet love me—wilt thou? Open thine heart wide,
And fold within the wet wings of thy dove.

Reading of Sonnet 35: "If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange"

Commentary on Sonnet 35: "If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange"

The speaker is asking questions of her belovèd; she needs assurance of his love as a shelter from her anxiety as she prepares to move from her childhood home.

First Quatrain: With an Eye Toward the Future

If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange
And be all to me? Shall I never miss
Home-talk and blessing and the common kiss
That comes to each in turn, nor count it strange,

The speaker begins her inquiry as she seeks to ascertain whether her belovèd plans to abandon his own life context in order to live with her; she is, of course "leav[ing] all for [him]."

The questioning speaker carries on with a further inquiry, wondering but also correctly believing that she will long for familiar events that currently and have always filled her life. She will miss such things as, "blessing," "home-talk," and "the common kiss."

The speaker then poses her question rather diplomatically in order to suggest that while she hopes she will not hanker back after her old home-life, she continues to harbor doubts about her ability to cut those ties so quickly and completely.

The speaker then admits that she "count[s] it strange," thinking that she would feel otherwise as she leaves her previous residence.

Second Quatrain: To Remain Steady

When I look up, to drop on a new range
Of walls and floors, another home than this?
Nay, wilt thou fill that place by me which is
Filled by dead eyes too tender to know change?

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The speaker then renders clarity for her missing the "walls and floors" that she has for so long remained accustomed to observing. For the speaker, the ordinary day to day observations and even noises around the home have become very significant in helping her remain truly steady in her view of reality.

This speaker knows that she is accustomed taking flights on mental wings that may sail her too far off from the here and now of daily life. Then a very vital question is posed: "wilt thou fill that place by me which is / Filled by dead eyes too tender to know change?"

Having her beloved beside her, though, leads the speaker to believe that her environmental change will affect her much less traumatically than she might imagine.

Although the speaker feels that her own eyes "are too tender to know change," she can navigate the notion that with her lover's assistance, she will likely find adjusting to the new environment possible.

First Tercet: A Philosophical Leaning

That’s hardest. If to conquer love, has tried,
To conquer grief, tries more, as all things prove;
For grief indeed is love and grief beside.

In the first tercet, the speaker examines some philosophical leaning that has motivated her earlier questions. Subduing grief has been the speaker's most difficult task. She finds that she must also conquer love, and that is also difficult. However, most difficult has been her struggle with pain, sorrow, and that unending grief.

She has discovered that "grief indeed is love and grief beside." If she were to lose her beloved or feel abandoned, her grief would compound beyond endurance.

This speaker has repeatedly agonized over every aspect of her life, sad fact after sad event. Her self-doubt has prevented her from immediate acceptance of the love of one she considers far above her station.

This speaker's low-self esteem has caused much musing and wringing of hands. But she always remains dignified in her questions for understanding, and those questions to her belovèd demonstrate a strong mind despite its many doubts.

Second Tercet: Bold Speech

Alas, I have grieved so I am hard to love.
Yet love me—wilt thou? Open thine heart wide,
And fold within the wet wings of thy dove.

The speaker readily confesses that her long-time knowledge of sorrow has rendered her "hard to love." Thus she then demands that her lover, "Yet love me," and then once again retracts the command, converting it to a mild question, "wilt thou?"

She has long lamented that she has grieved greatly in her lifetime; at times she seems nearly tipsy with her idiosyncratic ways, as she proposes again a command to her belovèd to, "Open thine heart wide, / And fold within the wet wings of thy dove."

The speaker finds any kind of bold speech beyond her capabilities, yet at the same time, she has convinced herself that she must unite with her deep soul, which she refers to as "dove." She must find her best self in order to continue in her relationship with her wonderful, magnificent belovèd.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 36: "When we met first and loved, I did not build"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 36" from Sonnets from the Portuguese reveals the speaker’s apprehension that the first moments of a new love might prove to be illusive; thus she refuses to believe unwaveringly in the possibility that love had arrived.

This speaker always remains aware that she must protect her heart from disaster. And at this point in their relationship, she knows that she could suffer a terrible broken heart if the relationship fails to flourish.

Sonnet 36: "When we met first and loved, I did not build"

When we met first and loved, I did not build
Upon the event with marble. Could it mean
To last, a love set pendulous between
Sorrow and sorrow? Nay, I rather thrilled,
Distrusting every light that seemed to gild
The onward path, and feared to overlean
A finger even. And, though I have grown serene
And strong since then, I think that God has willed
A still renewable fear … O love, O troth …
Lest these enclaspèd hands should never hold,
This mutual kiss drop down between us both
As an unowned thing, once the lips being cold.
And Love, be false! if he, to keep one oath,
Must lose one joy, by his life’s star foretold.

Reading of Sonnet 36: "When we met first and loved, I did not build"

Commentary on Sonnet 36: "When we met first and loved, I did not build"

The speaker again is demonstrating her inability to fully accept the love relationship that is growing with her belovèd suitor.

First Quatrain: Love Between Sorrow

When we met first and loved, I did not build
Upon the event with marble. Could it mean
To last, a love set pendulous between
Sorrow and sorrow? Nay, I rather thrilled,

The speaker says that when she and her belovèd first met and love began to flower, she did not readily accept that the feelings were genuine; she refused, "to build / Upon the event with marble." She questions whether love could endure for her "between / Sorrow and sorrow."

The reader is by now quite familiar with the sadness, pain, and grief the speaker has suffered in her life and that she continues to suffer these maladies. For this melancholy speaker to accept the balm of love remains very difficult. Her doubts and fears continue to remain more real to her than these new, most cherished feelings of love and affection.

Second Quatrain: Continuing Fear

Distrusting every light that seemed to gild
The onward path, and feared to overlean
A finger even. And, though I have grown serene
And strong since then, I think that God has willed

Answering her own question in the negative, the speaker asserts that she preferred to remain, "Distrusting every light that seemed to gild" the progression toward the loving relationship. The speaker's fears continues to prompt her to hold back her heart because she "feared to overlean / A finger even."

Quite uncharacteristically, the speaker admits that since that early time at the very beginning of this love relationship, she has, indeed, "grown serene / And strong." Such an admission is difficult for the personality of this troubled speaker, but she does remain aware that she must somehow come to terms with her evolving growth.

First Tercet: Skepticism for Protection

A still renewable fear … O love, O troth …
Lest these enclaspèd hands should never hold,
This mutual kiss drop down between us both

Still, even though this wary speaker is cognizant of her growth in terms of serenity and strength, she believes that God has instilled in her the ability to remain somewhat skeptical in order to protect herself from certain torture at having been wrong about the relationship.

This speaker knows that if, "these enclaspèd hands should never hold," she would be devastated if she had not protected her heart with those doubts. If the "mutual kiss" should "drop between us both," this ever-thinking speaker is sure her life would be filled with even more grief and sorrow.

Second Tercet: Wrenching Feeling

As an unowned thing, once the lips being cold.
And Love, be false! if he, to keep one oath,
Must lose one joy, by his life’s star foretold.

The speaker then spreads across the border of the tercets the wrenching feeling that her words are causing her. This melancholy speaker feels that she must give utterance to these thoughts, but she knows that they will cause pain, even to her belovèd. But if, "Love, be false," then she simply must acknowledge that possibility for both their sakes.

The speaker anticipates the likelihood that she might have to "lose one joy" which may already be written in her stars, and not knowing which joy that might be, she must remain watchful that it might be the very love she is striving so mightily to protect.

The Brownings

The Brownings

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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