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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese: Sonnet 39 and Sonnet 40

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 39: "Because thou hast the power and own’st the grace"

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 39, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker is attempting to leave her former diminished stature behind, now that she is unconditionally loved by a wonderful man.

The speaker is heaping all the credit upon her belovèd fiancé for her acquiring the ability to perceive her true nature despite all of the sorrow that years of pining away have left in her life.

Sonnet 39: "Because thou hast the power and own’st the grace"

Because thou hast the power and own’st the grace
To look through and behind this mask of me
(Against which years have beat thus blanchingly
With their rains), and behold my soul’s true face,
The dim and weary witness of life’s race,—
Because thou hast the faith and love to see,
Through that same soul’s distracting lethargy,
The patient angel waiting for a place
In the new Heavens,—because nor sin nor woe,
Nor God’s infliction, nor death’s neighborhood,
Nor all which others viewing, turn to go,
Nor all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed,—
Nothing repels thee, … Dearest, teach me so
To pour out gratitude, as thou dost, good!

Reading of Sonnet 39: "Because thou hast the power and own’st the grace"

Commentary on Sonnet 39: "Because thou hast the power and own’st the grace"

The speaker credits her belovèd with the delicious ability to see her true soul through all of the despair that the years have heaped upon her.

First Quatrain: Powers of Vision

Because thou hast the power and own’st the grace
To look through and behind this mask of me
(Against which years have beat thus blanchingly
With their rains), and behold my soul’s true face,

Addressing her belovèd, the speaker credits him with the ability to see "behind this mask of me." Throughout her life, the years of feeling sad and sorrowful have taken a tremendous toll on her physical beauty and mental attitude, but her new love is able to pierce through those superficialities to "behold [her] soul’s true face."

The speaker implies that she has spent many hours crying; thus, she metaphorically transforms the tears and years into "rains" that have "beat thus blanchingly."

Second Quatrain: A Forlorn Life

The dim and weary witness of life’s race,—
Because thou hast the faith and love to see,
Through that same soul’s distracting lethargy,
The patient angel waiting for a place

The speaker avers that her forlorn life has been witnessed by her soul, which has become "dim and weary." The melancholy speaker then reports and concludes that her new love has both the "faith and love" that enable him to intuit the true nature or her soul.

Though the speaker's soul has been abused in the senses as she experienced so much pain, doubt, and anguish and thus has grown dull with "distracting lethargy," it remained a "patient angel," biding its time for better things to come.

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First Tercet: A New Blossoming

In the new Heavens,—because nor sin nor woe,
Nor God’s infliction, nor death’s neighborhood,
Nor all which others viewing, turn to go,
Nor all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed,—
Nothing repels thee, … Dearest, teach me so
To pour out gratitude, as thou dost, good!

As the speaker' heavy-burdened soul waited "for a place / / In the new Heavens," she now realizes the extent to which she has become aware of a new blossoming through the love of her belovèd.

The speaker then begins a catalogue of negativity that has not been able to impede her belovèd from sensing the face of her real soul. That list includes "nor sin nor woe."

Furthermore, "God’s infliction" and "death’s neighborhood" could not hide her soul from him. And even other impediments of her personality that repelled others could not make her belovèd abandon her.

Second Tercet: A Catalogue of Maladies

Nor all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed,—
Nothing repels thee, … Dearest, teach me so
To pour out gratitude, as thou dost, good!

Continuing the catalogue of maladies, the speaker includes "all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed." When she judged herself most harshly, she had found so many imperfections that the accumulation of them weakened her will to live a productive life.

Yet even these worst qualities of character have not been able to route the speaker's new love from her, and her final remark shows the nature of her true soul.

The recovering melancholic speaker now commands her belovèd to "teach [her] so / To pour out gratitude." The speaker's miserable life has made her feel that she hitherto had nothing for which to be thankful, and now she needs to learn how to "pour out gratitude."

The speaker finally asserts that her belovèd has the ability to pour out "good" with such a spontaneous ease that she wants to learn to do so as well. If her belovèd is so generous with being "good," then the speaker wants to become generous in being thankful.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 40: "Oh, yes! they love through all this world of ours!"

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 40 from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker has discovered that her belovèd offers her the love that she finds most satisfying.

This special love demonstrates that it is unlike so many love behaviors and attitudes that have prevailed over the centuries all over the world. Thus, the speaker is musing on love as a general, universal phenomenon. She then emphasizes her appreciation for the patient love of her suitor.

Sonnet 40: "Oh, yes! they love through all this world of ours!"

Oh, yes! they love through all this world of ours!
I will not gainsay love, called love forsooth.
I have heard love talked in my early youth,
And since, not so long back but that the flowers
Then gathered, smell still. Mussulmans and Giaours
Throw kerchiefs at a smile, and have no ruth
For any weeping. Polypheme’s white tooth
Slips on the nut if, after frequent showers,
The shell is over-smooth,—and not so much
Will turn the thing called love, aside to hate,
Or else to oblivion. But thou art not such
A lover, my Belovèd! thou canst wait
Through sorrow and sickness, to bring souls to touch,
And think it soon when others cry "Too late."

Reading of Sonnet 40: "Oh, yes! they love through all this world of ours!"

Commentary on Sonnet 40: "Oh, yes! they love through all this world of ours!"

The speaker is musing on love as a universal phenomenon and stresses her appreciation for the patient love of her belovèd.

First Quatrain: An Excited Outburst

Oh, yes! they love through all this world of ours!
I will not gainsay love, called love forsooth.
I have heard love talked in my early youth,
And since, not so long back but that the flowers

The speaker begins with an outburst, "Oh, yes!" She then reports that people love all over the world. The musing speaker then claims that she will not speak ill of the concept of love, especially when the term is used correctly to mean love and not merely lust or sex.

The speaker then states that she remembers hearing people talk about love when she still a young girl, and even recently, she has also heard the word bandied about along with the gifts of flowers. Yet, this speaker is painfully aware that at times that professed love has lasted only as long as the scent of the flowers.

Second Quatrain: Different Ideologies on Love

Then gathered, smell still. Mussulmans and Giaours
Throw kerchiefs at a smile, and have no ruth
For any weeping. Polypheme’s white tooth
Slips on the nut if, after frequent showers

Differing ideologies perceive love through varying lenses from the devout exemplified by the "Mussulmans" to the "Giaours" or infidels. Each group has its own way of professing and conducting its behavior based on their respective beliefs.

Fanatics will continue in their fanaticism regardless of the evidence. Once smitten by love some folks will not let go of the object it deems worth its attention. From classical mythology, the character Polypheme, who was obsessed with Galatea, offers an additional example of the varieties of behaviors motivated by love.

First Tercet: Drawing a Contrast

The shell is over-smooth,—and not so much
Will turn the thing called love, aside to hate,
Or else to oblivion. But thou art not such

Nothing can turn these various lovers from their own folly. The speaker is especially interested in drawing a complete contrast between her lover and those others, whose obsessive and compulsive behaviors are never welcome in the name of love. By comparing and contrasting the varied love stories through history, the speaker can demonstrate the quiet, gentle nature of her own belovèd.

Second Tercet: Dramatizing a Favored Quality

A lover, my Belovèd! thou canst wait
Through sorrow and sickness, to bring souls to touch,
And think it soon when others cry "Too late."

In the final analysis, the speaker dramatizes the best quality of her own belovèd. This confident speaker can now assert that, " . . . thou art not such // A lover, my Belovèd!" He is not one of those who dwell on superficial qualities.

This speaker's suitor practices patience; thus, he can "wait / Through sorrow and sickness." More importantly, this speaker's belovèd suitor is capable of looking to the soul to forge his adventure in love, "to bring souls to touch."

The speaker always reveals that she is more interested in the soul level of love than in the physical and mental. This deep-thinking and creative speaker has realized that her belovèd’s thinking is so different from those who seek the petty over the profound.

This speaker is pleased to stress that he "think[s] it soon when other cry, "Too late." Finding the right soul mate seems soon when one is focusing on the genuine instead of the counterfeit. The speaker is happy to celebrate her belovèd’s proper focus.

The Brownings

The Brownings

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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