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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 9: "Can it be right to give what I can give?"

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 9: "Can it be right to give what I can give?"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet 9, from her classic sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, seems to offer the speaker's strongest rebuttal against the pairing of herself and her belovèd. She seems most adamant that he leave her; yet in her inflexible demeanor screams the opposite of what she seems to be urging upon her lover.

Sonnet 9: "Can it be right to give what I can give?"

Can it be right to give what I can give?
To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears
As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years
Re-sighing on my lips renunciative
Through those infrequent smiles which fail to live
For all thy adjurations? O my fears,
That this can scarce be right! We are not peers,
So to be lovers; and I own, and grieve,
That givers of such gifts as mine are, must
Be counted with the ungenerous. Out, alas!
I will not soil thy purple with my dust,
Nor breathe my poison on thy Venice-glass,
Nor give thee any love—which were unjust.
Beloved, I only love thee! let it pass.

Reading of Sonnet 9: "Can it be right to give what I can give?"

Commentary

As she continues to bemoan the gap between the social stations of her suitor and herself, the speaker wonders if she has anything to offer her belovèd.

First Quatrain: Only Sorrow to Offer

Can it be right to give what I can give?
To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears
As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years
Re-sighing on my lips renunciative

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ninth sonnet of the sequence, the speaker begins with a question, "Can it be right to give what I can give?" She then explains what she "can give"; through a bit of exaggeration, she contends that all she has to offer is her sorrow.

If her suitor continues with her, he will have to "sit beneath the fall of tears." And he will have to listen to her sighs again and again. Her "lips" are like a renunciant, who has given up all desire for worldly gain and material achievement.

Second Quatrain: Seldom Smiling Lips

Through those infrequent smiles which fail to live
For all thy adjurations? O my fears,
That this can scarce be right! We are not peers,
So to be lovers; and I own, and grieve,

The speaker’s lips have seldom smiled, and they even now seem incapable of acquiring the smiling habit, despite the attentions she is now receiving from her suitor. She is afraid that such an unbalanced situation is unfair to her lover; thus she laments, "this can scare be right!" Continuing she exclaims, "We are not peers," and this situation dominates her rhetoric and her concerns.

Because they are "not peers," she cannot fathom how they can be lovers, yet it seems that such is the nature of their maturing relationship. She feels that she must confess that the gap between them continues to taunt her and to cause her to "grieve."

First Tercet: Copious Tears

The speaker spells out her concern that by giving him such gifts as copious tears and unsmiling lips she has to be "counted with the ungenerous." She wishes it were otherwise; she would like to give gifts as rich as the ones she receives.

But because she is incapable of returning equal treasure, she again insists that her lover leave her; she cries, "Out, alas!" Again, elevating her lover to the status of royalty, she insists, "I will not soil they purple with my dust."

Second Tercet: Self-Argument

That givers of such gifts as mine are, must
Be counted with the ungenerous. Out, alas!
I will not soil thy purple with my dust,

Neither will she "breathe [her] poison on [his] Venice-glass." She will not allow her lowly station to sully his higher class. But then she goes much too far, saying, "[n]or give thee any love." She immediately reverses herself, averring that she was wrong in making such a statement.

Thus she asserts, "Belovèd, I only love thee! let it pass." She finally admits without reservation that she loves him and asks him to forget the protestations she has made. She asks him to "let it pass," or forget that she has made such suggestions that he should leave her; she wants nothing more than that he stay.

The Brownings

The Brownings

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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