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Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese: Sonnet 37 and Sonnet 38

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

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 37: "Pardon, oh, pardon, that my soul should make"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 37 from Sonnets from the Portuguese creates an appealing tension; while the speaker again denigrates herself, she is, nevertheless, asking her belovèd for forgiveness. She had simply behaved as would an innocent pagan who would offer only the humblest gift to his protector.

Sonnet 37: "Pardon, oh, pardon, that my soul should make"

Pardon, oh, pardon, that my soul should make,
Of all that strong divineness which I know
For thine and thee, an image only so
Formed of the sand, and fit to shift and break.
It is that distant years which did not take
Thy sovranty, recoiling with a blow,
Have forced my swimming brain to undergo
Their doubt and dread, and blindly to forsake
Thy purity of likeness and distort
Thy worthiest love to a worthless counterfeit:
As if a shipwrecked Pagan, safe in port,
His guardian sea-god to commemorate,
Should set a sculptured porpoise, gills a-snort
And vibrant tail, within the temple gate.

Reading of Sonnet 37: "Pardon, oh, pardon, that my soul should make"

Commentary on Sonnet 37: "Pardon, oh, pardon, that my soul should make"

The speaker continues to denigrate herself through an abundance of humility, still finding it difficult to accept her good fortune at finding such an illustrious love interest.

First Quatrain: An Emotional Appeal

The speaker creates an emotional appeal to her belovèd, asking pardon for her soul and simultaneously again demonstrating the level of her perceived poverty of mind and spirit.

She implies that despite the "strong divineness," which she now recognizes the belovèd to possess, as being "for thine and thee," she was able to construct in her imagination only a much less exalted "image only so formed of the sand."

Such a hastily constructed image made of mere sand was unable to endure the test of time and therefore could not do other than "shift and break."

Of course, she does not intend her belovèd to gather from this dramatic description that his image has actually broken; she is merely once again offering proof of what her poor soul was able to grasp in its sullied state prior to their meeting.

Second Quatrain: Distortion through Suffering

Again, the speaker recounts that having suffered for so many years has distorted her ability to recognize the true and the beautiful. She has needed constant tutoring in order to bring her perceptions in line with reality.

She has many times averred that she believes whole heartedly that her belovèd has a genuine heart, and she believes his love for her is nothing but pure gold.

Yet again, she must protect her heart, in case her early perceptions are false. She blames her feeble thought process on her "swimming brain." Having been disoriented by the possibility of finding such a pure love, she could not keep that brain from entertaining thoughts of "doubt and dread."

First Tercet: The Wages of Blindness

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Thus, she now realizes that she was quite blind in "forsak[ing] / / Thy purity." She, therefore, must ask "pardon" from having thought of his love as possibly nothing more than "a worthless counterfeit."

The speaker separates her thought over the second quatrain and first tercet. Thus, after she remarks, "blindly to forsake," she breaks the line to complete it in the second tercet. This construction gives the object of "to forsake" more emphasis after inserting the pause created by the break.

She then begins the construction of a simileic metaphor of a "shipwrecked Pagan," and again breaks the image over the two tercets for the same emphasis.

Second Tercet: Schooling the Poor Pagan

This poor Pagan, who is "safe in port," constructs "a sculptured porpoise, gills a-snort / And vibrant tail," to honor the "sea-god" who has protected him. While worthy in a very humble way, such a gift would not be appropriate to place "within the temple-gate."

But the poor Pagan would not be able to know better, until he had been schooled in the finer arts in life.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 38: "First time he kissed me, he but only kissed"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 38, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, is dramatizing 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"

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 Sonnet 38: "First time he kissed me, he but only kissed"

Commentary on Sonnet 38: "First time he kissed me, he but only kissed"

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 brililance, 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

The Brownings

© 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 Palm Springs, 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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