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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 42: "'My future will not copy fair my past'"

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 42: "'My future will not copy fair my past'"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 42, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, finds the speaker reading an old piece of writing that shows her state of mind back before she had met her belovèd fiancé. The speaker's words reveal to her that she had been extremely hopeless regarding her future. Her angelic muse was even admonishing her with stern agreement.

The speaker’s journey through life, of course, has since taken an auspicious turn. The fortunate speaker now has spent much time musing over her good fortune. In the preceding 41 sonnets, she has repeatedly demonstrated her wavering and wondering if she even deserves the love that seems to come so easily to her from such a wonderful, accomplished man.

The speaker has often been found musing and reflecting over her new situation. In sonnet 42, she has come up on some old pieces that she earlier had written. Thus, she begins to compare and contrast her thoughts from yesteryear to her present state of mind.

Sonnet 42: "'My future will not copy fair my past'"

"My future will not copy fair my past"—
I wrote that once; and thinking at my side
My ministering life-angel justified
The word by his appealing look upcast
To the white throne of God, I turned at last,
And there, instead, saw thee, not unallied
To angels in thy soul! Then I, long tried
By natural ills, received the comfort fast,
While budding, at thy sight, my pilgrim’s staff
Gave out green leaves with morning dews impearled.
I seek no copy now of life’s first half:
Leave here the pages with long musing curled,
And write me new my future’s epigraph,
New angel mine, unhoped for in the world!

Reading of Sonnet 42: "'My future will not copy fair my past'"

Commentary

The speaker is musing and reflecting over some old pieces of writing; she is comparing her thoughts of the past to her present state of mind.

First Quatrain: Then and Now

"My future will not copy fair my past"—
I wrote that once; and thinking at my side
My ministering life-angel justified
The word by his appealing look upcast

The speaker is musing over a copy of some notes or pieces of memoir that she had written sometime in her past long before she met her belovèd. At the time she wrote this line, "My future will not copy fair my past," she believed it was true because her muse which she calls her "ministering life-angel" approved the words by glancing upward. This glance seemed to be a signal that the thought came directly from God.

Second Quatrain: Looking to God

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To the white throne of God, I turned at last,
And there, instead, saw thee, not unallied
To angels in thy soul! Then I, long tried
By natural ills, received the comfort fast,

Later, the speaker looked directly to God herself, instead of through her muse/angel. She then saw her belovèd who was clearly bound to "angels in [his] soul." The speaker's long journey from suffering and pain had finally led her to a veritable fountain of healing.

The comforting balm of the speaker's belovèd quickly revived her spirit, though it took her mind much contemplation and even agitation to understand and finally accept what she had been given by him.

First Tercet: Beginning to Live

While budding, at thy sight, my pilgrim’s staff
Gave out green leaves with morning dews impearled.
I seek no copy now of life’s first half:

During the journey, the speaker's "pilgrim’s staff / Gave out green leaves with morning dews impearled." A youthful freshness revived the speaker's thinking and inspired her so fully that she finally felt she was beginning to live.

After at last realizing the beauty and majesty of this man’s feelings for her, the speaker now understands that the second half of her life will be very different from the first half, and she is very grateful for this fortunate change in her situation. Because of her good fortune, the speaker "seek[s] no copy now of life’s first half." The pain of the past has been erased, and the future portends brightness and happiness.

Second Tercet: The Courage to Hope

Leave here the pages with long musing curled,
And write me new my future’s epigraph,
New angel mine, unhoped for in the world!

Regarding the "pages with long musing," the speaker wishes to allow them to yellow and age and remain unremarkable. She can "write [herself] new [her] future’s epigraph." The speaker credits her belovèd whom she calls, "New angel mine," with her transformation, as she admits that she had not even had the courage to hope for such a love "in the world."

The Brownings

The Brownings

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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