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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 9

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 9

Sonnet 9, from 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?
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

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

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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