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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 36: "When we met first and loved, I did not build"

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

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 36, from her classic sonnet sequence, 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

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

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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