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Overview of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning masterfully employs the Petrarchan form in her classic sonnet sequence, her tribute to her belovèd husband.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Engraving from original Painting by Chappel, 1872

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Engraving from original Painting by Chappel, 1872

Two Poets in Love

While courting Elizabeth Barrett, poet Robert Browning lovingly referred to her by the nickname he had given her: "my little Portuguese." He chose that appellation for her because of her dark complexion; thus, it naturally followed that Elizabeth Barrett would then title her sequence of sonnets Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Through the decades, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese has remained a widely anthologized and studied sequence. The poet demonstrates her mastery of the Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet form throughout the 44-sonnet sequence.

The theme, maintained throughout the sonnet sequence, spotlights the developing romantic relationship between Elizabeth Barrett and fellow poet, Robert Browning, the man who will become her husband.

As their relationship begins and then grows and flowers, Elizabeth continues to entertain deep doubts about her ability to retain the affection of such an accomplished, world-renowned individual as Robert Browning; thus, she demonstrates much skepticism that the relationship will endure.

She examines her insecurities, often deepening and magnifying them, before calming her heart to final acceptance. Elizabeth’s experience with love relationships, no doubt, accounts, in part, for her initial hesitancy in accepting a relationship with Robert Browning:

Much of E.B.B.'s hesitation came from knowing that love can bring injury as well as boon. She had suffered such injury. With great pain did she finally recognise that her father's strangely heartless affection would have buried her sickroom, for how else could she interpret his squelching of her plan to travel south for health in 1846, when doctors practically ordered the journey to Italy as a last hope? E.B.B. had had previous experience of one-sided affection, as we see in her diary of 1831-3, which concerns her relationship with the Greek scholar H.S. Boyd. For a year her entries calculate the bitter difference between his regard and her own, and she wonders if she can ever hope for reciprocation. In fact she finds her womanly capacity for feeling a liability and wishes she could feel less — "I am not of a cold nature, & cannot bear to be treated coldly. When cold water is thrown upon a hot iron, the iron hisses. I wish that water wd. make that iron as cold as self."

Elizabeth Barrett’s ill health is often noted in biographies of the poet.

And while few have hazarded a guess as to the cause or even the name of her disease, Anne Buchanan, research assistant in anthropology, has offered a suggestion for the illness from which Elizabeth Barrett suffered. Buchanan’s daughter suffers from hypokalemic periodic paralysis (HKPP).

This disease is a muscle disorder which "causes blood levels of potassium to fall because potassium becomes trapped in muscle cells."

Buchanan and her daughter, Ellen Buchanan Weiss, noted that the descriptions of Barrett Browning’s illness closely matched those of the daughter. The Buchanans noted that a cold, damp climate can intensity the pain brought on by HKPP.

During Barrett Browning’s lifetime, the cold, damp weather of London had exacerbated Elizabeth’s health issues, and whatever the name of her misery, it was a Godsend to her that she married Robert Browning, who relocated the couple to the warmer, more amenable climate of Italy.

Because of Browning, Elizabeth not only found a soulmate who would love her, but also one who protected her and helped her live her remaining years more comfortably and productively.

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374)

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374)

The Petrarchan (Italian) Sonnet Form

Named for the 14 century Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch, the Petrarchan sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet plays out in an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. The octave features two quatrains (four lines each), and the sestet contains two tercets (three lines each).

Traditionally, the rime scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is ABBAABBA in the octave and CDCDCD in the sestet; however, poets often vary the sestet rime scheme from CDCDCD to CDECDE, as well as other configurations, but Barrett Browning never varied the rime scheme, retaining the traditional ABBAABBACDCDCD.

This restriction that she imposed on herself for the composition of 44 sonnets demonstrates her mastery of that art.

Her choice of the Petrarchan sonnet also demonstrates her essential affinity with of the original poet’s theme, as she investigates the relationship between herself and her beloved and the relationship between human relationships and the Divine Creator:

[Petrarch’s] poems investigate the connection between love and chastity in the foreground of a political landscape, though many of them are also driven by emotion and sentimentality. Critic Robert Stanley Martin writes that Petrarch “reimagined the conventions of love poetry in the most profound way: love for the idealized lady was the path towards learning how to properly love God . . ."

Separating the sonnet’s quatrains and sestets provides the commentarian a clear focus to concentrate on each segment. However, each sonnet in this sequence consists of one stanza only, complete with octave and sestet.

(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.")

A Legacy of Love

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet sequence begins with an extraordinary yet imaginative open field for discovery. The poet’s life, which had been one of much illness along with misunderstanding by her family, especially her father, had resulted in a tendency toward melancholy.

As the poet progresses throughout the sonnet sequence, she demonstrates a change of mood—from one that held to the notion that death may be her only consort to one of joy that she was loved and valued by and individual such as Robert Browning, a man of the world, confident, and genuinely in love with her.

While their relationship had to overcome its share of trials and tribulations, the ultimate love story that results remains one for the ages, and the world knows more about these two lover-poets than it would otherwise without their loving relationship:

In addition to being celebrated for their literary talents, Elizabeth and Robert are remembered as people who were deeply in love. As Sir Frederic Kenyon wrote, Elizabeth and Robert “gave the most beautiful example of [love] in their own lives.” The marriage of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning required courage and sacrifice, and they were willing to do whatever it took to build a beautiful life together.

Barrett Browning’s 44-sonnets sequence puts on display the journey of a poet who begins in doubt, explores the root causes of those doubts, and then blooms with the acceptance of the love that had been so freely and genuinely offered her.

The story of the relationship between these two poets remains one of the most inspirational and most passionate love stories in the literary world.


© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes