Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 38 - Owlcation - Education
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 38

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 38

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 38" from her classic work, Sonnets from the Portuguese, dramatizes the speaker’s elated feelings after the first three kisses shared with her belovèd: the first was on her hand with which she writes, the second was on her forehead, and third on her lips.

The speaker's love relationship with her suitor has continued to grow stronger even as she has continued to have serious doubts about it. Readers likely have begun to wonder if this speaker will ever surrender to this desire and accept the fact that her suitor is, in fact, offering her the love she so desperately wants to accept.

Sonnet 38

First time he kissed me, he but only kissed
The fingers of this hand wherewith I write;
And ever since, it grew more clean and white,
Slow to world-greetings, quick with its "Oh, list,"
When the angels speak. A ring of amethyst
I could not wear here, plainer to my sight,
Than that first kiss. The second passed in height
The first, and sought the forehead, and half missed,
Half falling on the hair. O beyond meed!
That was the chrism of love, which love’s own crown,
With sanctifying sweetness, did precede.
The third upon my lips was folded down
In perfect, purple state; since when, indeed,
I have been proud and said, "My love, my own."

Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 38

Commentary

Even as their love relationship grows stronger, there still remains a tinge of doubt that the speaker will ever completely surrender to that love.

First Quatrain: Kissing the Hand

First time he kissed me, he but only kissed
The fingers of this hand wherewith I write;
And ever since, it grew more clean and white,
Slow to world-greetings, quick with its "Oh, list,"

The speaker’s belovèd first kissed her on her writing hand. After this first kiss, she has noticed a remarkable transition of that hand: it appears cleaner and lighter. That hand has grown "slow to world-greetings," but "quick" to caution her to listen to the angels when they speak.

In a stroke of technical brillance, the speaker/poet again uses the device of breaking the line between "Oh, list," and "When angels speak," over the two quatrains. This improvised special emphasis gives the same sense as an extended sigh with the facial expression of one seeing some magical being.

Second Quatrain: The Honored Kiss

When the angels speak. A ring of amethyst
I could not wear here, plainer to my sight,
Than that first kiss. The second passed in height
The first, and sought the forehead, and half missed,

The speaker’s hand could not be more real and have any better decoration, such as "a ring of amethyst," than it does now that her belovèd has honored it with his kiss. The enchanted speaker then scurries on to report about the second kiss, which sounds rather comical: the second kiss was aimed at her forehead, but "half-missed" and lands half in her hair and half on the flesh.

First Tercet: Ecstatic Joy

Half falling on the hair. O beyond meed!
That was the chrism of love, which love’s own crown,
With sanctifying sweetness, did precede.

Despite the comical half-hair/half-forehead miss, the speaker is carried away in an ecstatic joy, "O beyond meed!" The clever speaker puns on the word "meed" to include the meaning of "reward" as well as the famously intoxicating beverage, "mead." The speaker has become drunk with the delight of this new level of intimacy.

This kiss is "the chrism of love," and it is also "love’s own crown"; again, similar to the "meed" pun, the speaker stresses the double meaning of the term "crown," as the headdress of a king or simply the crown of the head. The "sanctifying sweetness" of this kiss has preceded and grown out of the love that now is so sweet and electrifying.

Second Tercet: A Royal Kiss

The third upon my lips was folded down
In perfect, purple state; since when, indeed,
I have been proud and said, "My love, my own."

Finally, the third kiss "folded down" "upon [her] lips." And it was perfect. It possessed her in a "purple state." This royal kiss elevated her mind to pure royalty. She thus returns again to referring to her belovèd in royal terms as she had done in earlier sonnets.

So since that series of kisses, especially that third royal embrace, the speaker has "been proud and said, ‘My love, my own.’" This reluctant speaker is finally accepting her belovèd as the love of her life and allows herself the luxury of placing her faith in his love.

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

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 22, 2017:

Robert Browning was a fortunate man to have such a series of sonnets dedicated to him. And Barrett Browning was blessed to have such a fine poet and gentleman fall in love with her. Her reluctance at first to realize her good fortune and accept it has enriched the literary canon immensely.

Thanks for the comment, Mark!

Mark Tulin from Santa Barbara, California on April 22, 2017:

I guess the third kiss was a charm. I can only imagine that she completely burst or imploded with the fourth. I think we all experienced a kiss that we didn't want to wash off and keep for an eternity. She was lucky enough to have three.

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