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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 41

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 41

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 41” from her classic Sonnets from the Portuguese is focusing on gratitude for all who have loved her, while hoping that she will be able to express the extent of her gratitude to her belovèd. Again, however, this speaker imparts her own short-comings. She will never be able to act with total confidence in her ability, it seems.

While expressing a special debt to her belovèd, the speaker explores her ability to experience gratitude for all the loves she has known in the past. Yet, the speaker again places her trust in her belovèd's ability to teach her true gratitude. She continues to rely on her suitor to offer her direction in how to feel as well as how to behave.

Sonnet 41

I thank all who have loved me in their hearts,
With thanks and love from mine. Deep thanks to all
Who paused a little near the prison-wall
To hear my music in its louder parts
Ere they went onward, each one to the mart’s
Or temple’s occupation, beyond call.
But thou, who, in my voice’s sink and fall
When the sob took it, thy divinest Art’s
Own instrument didst drop down at thy foot
To hearken what I said between my tears, …
Instruct me how to thank thee! Oh, to shoot
My soul’s full meaning into future years,
That they should lend it utterance, and salute
Love that endures, from Life that disappears!

Reading of Sonnet 41

Commentary

The speaker in Barrett Browning's "Sonnet 41" expresses her gratitude for all those who have loved her-including, of course, a special debt to her belovèd.

First Quatrain: A Simple Statement of Gratitude

I thank all who have loved me in their hearts,
With thanks and love from mine. Deep thanks to all
Who paused a little near the prison-wall
To hear my music in its louder parts

The speaker begins with a simple statement thanking, “all who have loved me in their hearts.” She then offers her own heart’s love in return. Continuing, she expresses her gratitude as “deep thanks” to all those who have paid some attention to her, especially when they listened to her complaints.

The speaker then metaphorically characterizes her tantrum-like outbursts as “music” with “louder parts.” The speaker demands decorum for herself that will not allow her to demonize herself even as she freely admits error and sorrowful dissatisfaction. The pain in the speaker's life has motivated her to expressions, as heretofore love never had.

Second Quatrain: A Different Expression of Love

Ere they went onward, each one to the mart’s
Or temple’s occupation, beyond call.
But thou, who, in my voice’s sink and fall
When the sob took it, thy divinest Art’s

All the others who had paid the speaker attention, however, were otherwise engaged; some had to scurry off to shopping, others to church, and they all remained far from her. She could not reach them, if she even had needed them.

Of course, her belovèd not only is near and capable of listening to her pleasantries, but he also lovingly remains to listen to her sorrows. The speaker's belovèd would stop his own musing to attend to her, and she now feels safe in vocalizing her complete attention to his patience and devotion.

First Tercet: His Divinest Art

Own instrument didst drop down at thy foot
To hearken what I said between my tears, …
Instruct me how to thank thee! Oh, to shoot

The speaker is grateful that her belovèd would even interrupt his own work of “divinest Art’s” to attend to her needs and “hearken what I said between my tears.”

But in offering such gratitude, the speaker implies that she actually does not know how to thank him for such devotion.

Thus, the speaker demands of him, “Instruct me how to thank thee!” She feels she lacks the words to convey such gratitude; her need is so great, and her gratitude seems so paltry to fulfill the debt that she owes this man.

Second Tercet: Evidence of Thankfulness

My soul’s full meaning into future years,
That they should lend it utterance, and salute
Love that endures, from Life that disappears!

The speaker then projects a deep desire that her soul can reveal sometime in future just how grateful she is to her belovèd. She hopes that she can fill her “future years” with evidence of her thankfulness.

The humble speaker prays that her very being will be able to “salute / Love that endures, from Life that disappears!” Even though the living are in a state of gradual dying, the speaker prays that the love which she has received will somehow be returned along with the sincere gratitude she now feels.

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

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