Sonnets from the Portuguese
Sonnets from the Portuguese
THE LITERARY WORK
A sequence of sonnets, set in nineteenth-century England; published in 1850.
A female poet depicts the progression of her romance with a male poet, ífrom the first tentative stages of courtship to the fulfillment of commitment.
Born in 1806 in County Durham, England, Elizabeth Moulton-Barrett was the eldest of 11 surviving children. Although, like most young girls of the time, she had no formal schooling, she shared a tutor with the brother closest to her in age, studying Latin and Greek. Elizabeth Barrett furthered her education by extensive readings in history, philosophy, and literature. She also began to compose poetry at an early age; The Battle of Marathon was privately printed by her father in 1820. In 1825 her poem “The Rose and the Zephyr” was published in the Literary Gazette, and the following year, a collection of poetry, An Essay on Mind with Other Poems, appeared in print. Over the next two decades, Elizabeth Barrett continued to write poems and essays, publishing several volumes, including Prometheus Bound and Miscellaneous Poems (1833), The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), and Poems (1844). Plagued by chronic ill-health since adolescence, she became increasingly reclusive as an adult, a tendency that her domineering father, who had forbidden any of his children to marry, did not discourage. A chance correspondence with Robert Browning in 1845, however, led to an eventual meeting between the two poets, which, in turn, resulted in a secret romance, culminating in marriage and departure for Italy in 1846, where the couple lived until the death of Barrett, now named Barrett Browning, in 1861. Her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) depicts the stages of the poets’ developing romance, while introducing innovation into a lyric form brought to its height nearly 500 years earlier, the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet.
The Barrett-Browning courtship
One of the most famous romances of the Victorian period began quietly enough with a compliment from one poet to another. In her poem “Lady Geral-dine’s Courtship,” Elizabeth Barrett, who by this time had won some renown for her own verse, paid tribute to the work of a rising younger poet, Robert Browning. She had recently become acquainted with his pamphlet series, Bells and Pomegranates. Alluding to certain verses read by the poet-narrator to Lady Geraldine, Barrett mentioned that very series: “Or from Browning some ‘Pomegranate,’ which, if cut deep down the middle,/Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity” (Barrett Browning in Porter and Clarke, vol. 2, p. 292). Browning’s response to this compliment, when he learned of it, was characteristically ardent. In a letter dated January 10, 1845, Browning declared, “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett” and later reiterated, “I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart—and I love you too” (Browning in Karlin, p. 1). Barrett herself responded warmly the following day, “I thank you, dear Mr. Browning, from the bottom of my heart. Such a letter from such a hand! Sympathy is dear—very dear to me: but the sympathy of a poet & of such a poet, is the quintessence of sympathy to me! Will you take back my gratitude for it?” (Barrett Browning in Karlin, p. 2). Shortly thereafter, the two poets embarked on a regular correspondence, declaring themselves delighted with each other’s letters. Barrett asserted that “everybody likes writing to somebody—& it [would] be strange and contradictory if I were not always delighted both to hear from you and to write to you” (Barrett Browning in Karlin, p. 10).
In many respects, Barrett and Browning could not have been more different. The only son of middle-class parents, the 32-year-old Browning enjoyed travel and moved easily and freely through literary society in London, though his works had not yet found great favor with the critics or the public. By contrast, Barrett was six years Browning’s senior and an invalid. Ill-health had troubled her since adolescence; moreover, she had been devastated by several deaths in the family, including that of her favorite brother, Edward (nicknamed “Bro”), who had drowned in a sailing accident in 1840. Inheritances from her grandmother and uncle made Elizabeth the only one of the Barrett children to be independently wealthy. Because of their father’s opposition to the idea of his children’s marrying, all remained at the family home on Wimpole Street in London. Her physical frailty kept Barrett confined to her bedroom: family members—and occasionally friends—visited her there, bringing her whatever she asked. Relieved of domestic responsibilities because of her poor health, she became a voracious reader and prolific writer—of letters, poems, and essays. By the time she and Browning exchanged their first letters, Barrett was England’s most famous woman poet, a celebrity whose work had found favor on both sides of the Atlantic, in America as well as England.
After several months of correspondence, Barrett at last consented to a personal meeting; on May 20, 1845, Browning paid his first visit to 50 Wimpole Street and was received by Barrett in her own room. A few days later he apparently wrote the one letter of their correspondence which does not survive—Barrett returned it to him at his request and he destroyed it. Most Browning scholars agree that the letter most likely contained a declaration of love. Barrett reproached Browning in her reply: “(You do not know what pain you give me in speaking so wildly. . . . You have said some intemperate things . . . fancies—which you will not say over again, nor unsay, but forget at once, & for ever, having said at all,—and which (so) will die out between you & me alone, like a misprint between you and the printer” (Barrett Browning in Karlin, p. 57). Moreover, if Browning ever alluded to the subject again “I must not. I WILL not see you again—& you will justify me later in your heart” (Barrett Browning in Karlin, p. 58). After Browning apologized for his intemperance, the letters and visits—Browning was to record 91 visits to Wimpole Street in the course of their courtship—resumed. (Virginia Woolfs Flush is the story of these visits from the perspective of Barrett Browning’s dog.)
By August, the friendship between the two poets had reached a point at which Browning felt emboldened to speak again, “Let me say now—this only once—that I loved you from my soul, and gave you my life, so much of it as you would take” (Browning in Karlin, p. 109). Barrett, oppressed by ill-health, a sense of her own unwor-thiness, and the tyrannical strictures of her widowed father, replied more cautiously, “The subject will not bear consideration—it breaks in our hands. But that God is stronger than we, cannot be a bitter thought to you but a holy thought. . . . While He lets me, as much as I can be anyone’s, be only yours” (Barrett Browning in Karlin, p. 119).
In the autumn of 1845, Dr. Chambers, Barrett’s physician, prescribed that she go abroad for her health to avoid spending another winter in London. Pisa, Italy, was suggested as a destination; two of Barrett’s siblings would accompany her (unknown to anyone but Elizabeth was the plan for Browning to show up wherever she spent the winter). Barrett’s father, however, disapproved so thoroughly of the Pisa scheme that it was ultimately abandoned, a development that led Barrett to question whether he really cared for her welfare or not. Browning responded to her distress by declaring, “I would marry you now and thus—I would come when you let me and go when you bade me,. . . when your head ached I should be here” (Browning in Karlin, p. 131). Touched, Barrett at last capitulated, “Henceforward I am yours for everything but to do you harm . if [God] should free me within a moderate time from the trailing chain of this weakness, I will then be to you whatever at that hour you shall choose . whether friend or more than friend” (Barrett Browning in Karlin, pp. 132-33).
During the winter months, Barrett began to take some exercise outdoors, and her health improved noticeably. By spring, she and Browning were planning their future together—amazingly, they had managed to conceal their entire romance from her father—and on September 12, 1846, the couple were married secretly at St. Marylebone Church in London, with only her maid and his cousin as witnesses.
Barrett Browning returned to Wimpole Street afterwards but did not inform her siblings of her marriage. A week later, the Brownings—accompanied by Barrett Browning’s maid and her King Charles spaniel, Flush—set off for Italy where they were to live for the whole of their married lives. Mr. Barrett never forgave his daughter for her elopement. Two other children, Henrietta and Alfred, who married in his lifetime, were also disinherited.
During the lovers’ courtship, Barrett Browning was at work on Sonnets from the Portuguese The poems’ exact dates of composition remain unknown, but thoughts expressed in her letters to Browning found their way into the sonnets. Barrett Browning’s realization that she had resigned herself to an early death before meeting Browning—“I had done living, I thought, when you came & sought me out!”—resonates through several sonnets in the sequence, most notably in the first sonnet, in which “a mystic Shape” yanks the weeping speaker “backward by the hair” and proves to be “Not Death, but Love” (Barrett
A MYSTERY ILLNESS
The cause of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ill-health has never been conclusively determined. As a child, she had been quite healthy, a tomboy who enjoyed the outdoors. But in autumn 1821, Elizabeth and her sisters, Henrietta and Arabella, all fell ill with what appeared to be the same ailment. Symptoms included headaches, pains in the side, and muscle spasms. While Henrietta and Arabella recovered quickly, Elizabeth did not; she was still experiencing malaise when she contracted measles the following summer. Not too surprisingly, she became preoccupied with thoughts of her ill-health. One physician. Dr. Coker, thought she suffered from a “nervous disorder” and prescribed opium—a common remedy of the time-to which, unfortunately. Elizabeth became habituated for the rest of her life. At another point, it was thought that Elizabeth might have a disease of the spine—as a result, she was sent to a spa in Gloucester, where she spent long periods of time in a spine crib, a kind of hammock, so that the condition might manifest itself and thus be treated. The treatment appeared to have little effect and Elizabeth returned home nearly a year later. Her health continued to be uncertain in adulthood—she suffered severe bronchial attacks that became more frequent as she kept increasingly to her bedroom, shunning fresh air and exercise. By the time Robert Browning became her correspondent, Elizabeth had resigned herself to ill-health and, in all likelihood, an early death, as some of the verse in Sonnets from the Portuguese reveals. Referring to herself as “a poor, tired wandering singer” leaning against a “cypress tree” (a traditional symbol of death), the speaker argues that she and her lover are incompatible in life because ‘The chrism is on thine head—on mine the dew,—/And Death must dig the level where these agree” (Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, 3:11, 12, 13, 14).
Browning in Karlin, p. 125; Sonnets, 1:10-11.14 Incidents from the poets’ courtship were also immortalized in verse, including their exchanging locks of hair in Sonnets 18 and 19, her rapturous rereading of his letters to her in Sonnet 28, and her asking him to call her by her pet-name (“Ba”) in Sonnet 33. However, no reference to Barrett Browning’s composition of the sonnets appeared in her letters to Browning of the time. It was not until 1849, nearly three years after their marriage, that she at last found the courage to show him these highly personal poems.
During the nineteenth century, marriage was, for the most part, regarded as a woman’s natural destiny, a highly probable
Form a letter in which Barrett asks Browning to use her pet-name:
I am glad that you do not despise my own right name too much, because I was never called Elizabeth by anyone who loved me at all , & I accept the omen—So little it seems my name that if a voice said suddenly ’Elizabeth/ I should as soon turn round as my sisters would . no sooner. Only my own right name has been complained of’ for want of euphony . . . Ba.”
(Barrett Browning in Karlin, p. 189)
From Browning’s response:
“You never before heard me love and bless and send my heart after . . . ‘Ba’—did your 8a . and that is you! I TRIED—(more than wanted—) to call you that, on Wednesday!’
(Browning in Karlin, p. 190)
if not inevitable milestone in her life. While such factors as social class and level of affluence still influenced courtship and marriage practices, women in general had more personal freedom in choosing whom to wed than their mothers and grandmothers had. Historians Estelle B. Freed-man and Ema Olafson Hellerstein contend,
The weakening of external controls on courtship was in fact a mixed blessing for women. To the extent that it lessened the surveillance over their romantic and sexual behavior, it brought greater personal autonomy; but at the same time it left them unprotected as they ventured into a larger world. . . . Women’s sexual and economic vulnerability, their desire for respectability and security, and their longing (in many cases) for children combined with the growing ordeal of romantic love to place great pressure on them to marry. Spinsterhood was, in fact, rare in the nineteenth century—by the end of the century, more than 90 percent of all American women married, as did 85-88 percent of the women in England and France.
(Freedman and Hellerstein in Hellerstein et al, p. 121)
Spinsters did exist, however, from all walks of life. Historian Sally Mitchell notes that, in Victorian England, “[t]here were more women in their twenties and thirties than men to marry them (largely because of male emigration and colonial service), but not all single women were unhappy old maids. In the working classes, women in well-paid trades were more apt to remain single than those whose earnings were too low to provide adequate support. Among the middle and upper classes, too, it was quite possible for women to earn decent incomes and live contented, independent lives” (Mitchell, p. 269).
Financial independence made a huge difference in an unmarried woman’s quality of life, as did race, class, and nationality. White middle-class women with independent means could create comfortable existences for themselves and, if necessary, become teachers, writers, lecturers, or social reformers. For much of the period, however, it was considered socially unacceptable for middle-class women to do paid work; in general, a middle-aged, middle-class spinster with no money of her own was expected to stay with her parents until their deaths. After that, she could keep house for an unmarried brother or move in with a married sibling who had a large family and serve as an unpaid companion or nurse to her nieces and nephews.
The situation of Barrett and her siblings was at once typical and atypical of the preceding scenario. Mr. Barrett opposed marriage for all his children, apparently desiring to keep every one of them under his control. As noted, Barrett herself had an independent income from legacies bequeathed to her by her grandmother and uncle; so she did not need to write for her living. She furthermore chose to remain in the family home because of her poor health, her love for her siblings, and her love for her father. Even in her youth, before illness took such a firm hold on her, Barrett apparently had no inclination to marry. In a diary she kept as a child, Barrett declared, “My mind is naturally independent and spurns that subserviency of opinion which is generally considered necessary to feminine softness!” (Barrett Browning in Forster, p. 29). As an adolescent, Barrett read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times) and came to sympathize with many of its views. She also observed in her parents’ marriage an example of women’s subservience to men, which she evidently deplored. Years later, she described to Browning her late mother—who had died suddenly when Barrett was 22:
A sweet gentle nature, which the thunder a little turned from its sweetness—as when it turns milk—One of those women who never can resist,—but in submitting & bowing on themselves, make a mark, a plait, within, . . . a sign of suffering. Too womanly she was—it was her only fault—Good, good, & dear—& refined too!
(Barrett Browning in Karlin, p. 293)
Intriguingly, Barrett alludes several times to her lost mother in Sonnets from the Portuguese—specifically, in Sonnets 18 and 33—but never once refers in these poems to the father who dominated much of her adult life.
Women and writing
While many middle-class Victorian women who did not marry eventually became housekeepers, companions, and nurses in the households of married relatives, a significant number turned to yet another means to support themselves and became writers. Some even found lasting fame as authors, including George Eliot (see Middlemarch , in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), the journalist Harriet Martineau, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself. Historians Leslie Parker Hume and Karen M. Offen contend: “During the first half of the nineteenth century the best English writing was nourished in rural parsonages or country cottages, as the careers of the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen attest; . . . there were many women who turned to writing to supplement their incomes; this was one of the few types of work in which a needy middle-class woman could engage without losing social status” (Hume and Offen in Hellerstein et al, p. 280).
Nonetheless, women who wrote professionally faced their share of difficulties. Although most of them worked in the home (considered women’s proper sphere), “their vocation brought them into direct conflict with the cultural bias that defined writing as intellectual and therefore unwomanly” (Hume and Offen in Hellerstein et al, p. 280). Female would-be authors were not supposed to aspire to the same lofty literary goals as their male counterparts. Some women writers of the nineteenth century chose male pseudonyms, either to help them find publishers or to ensure that their work was given a fair hearing by critics and the public: Marian Evans became George Eliot, while Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontē took the names, respectively, of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Other writers, including Elizabeth Gaskell and Dinah Maria Mulock, emphasized the elements of domesticity or morality in their work to offset charges of being “unwomanly.”
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Barrett did not have to write for her living for financial reasons. Not only did she have the bequests from her uncle and grandmother, but also she belonged to an upper-middle-class family of considerable means, even though financial reverses in the 1830s had led to Mr. Barrett’s selling their country property—Hope End in Herefordshire—and eventually moving the family to London. Nor did Barrett need to resort to a male pseudonym—by the 1840s, she had become a literary celebrity in her own right. Nonetheless, Barrett herself often regretted the dearth of women poets whom she could emulate and by whom she could be inspired, once writing wistfully, “I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none” (Barrett Browning in Bristow, p. 1). Literary analyst Dorothy Mermin explains,
Women had written good poetry in English, had even been published and read, before [Barrett] . . . but in the nineteenth century their works were almost invisible. The popular “poetesses” who adorned the literary scene when she began to write—Joanna Baillie, Felicia Humans, Letitia Landon, and others of smaller merit and renown, inspired her as both positive and negative examples, but theirs was not the noble lineage with which she wished to claim affiliation. . . . Lacking female precursors (or grandmothers), she became such a precursor herself.
(Mermin, pp. 1-2)
Throughout Sonnets from the Portuguese, Barrett Browning exhibits a distinct awareness of her own role as a poet. While the speaker often presents herself as inferior to her lover in health, vigor, and talents, she never forgets that she too is a professional and it is as a poetic peer that she most often addresses him. Moreover, when earthly differences are stripped away and their “two souls stand up erect and strong,/Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,” the lovers are revealed as true spiritual equals (Sonnets, 22:1-2).
Like many sonnet sequences, Sonnets from the Portuguese contains a narrative of sorts, as the various stages of a love relationship unfold. The sequence begins as the speaker recalls how the Greek poet Theocritus sang nostalgically of “the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years” (Sonnets, 1:2). These musings lead her, in turn, to remember “the melancholy years,/Those of my own life, who by turns had flung/A shadow across me” (Sonnets, 1:7-9). Memories of past sorrows and all that she has missed cause the speaker to weep, but suddenly “a mystic Shape did move/Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;/And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,—/”’Guess now who holds thee?”’ (Sonnets, 1:10-13). The speaker replies, “Death,” but is speedily contradicted: “The silver answer rang,—’Not Death but Love’” (Sonnets, 1:14).
Surprised by love, the speaker initially expresses disbelief that her lover, a fellow poet, desires her. To her mind, they are so dissimilar in every way that she imagines that their “ministering two angels look surprise/On one another as they strike athwart/Their wings in passing” (Sonnets, 3:3-5). Her lover is a “guest for queens to social pageantries,” eminently suited to the role of “chief musician” (Sonnets, 3:6, 9). She, by contrast, is a “poor, tired, wandering singer, singing through/The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree” (Sonnets, 3:11-12). Several times, the speaker exhorts her suitor to “go from [her],” even as she realizes it is already too late because she feels that he has become a part of her: “What I do/And what I dream include thee, as the wine/Must taste of its own grapes” (Sonnets, 6:1, 10-12).
The speaker ponders her changed circumstances: having resigned herself to an early death, she instead finds herself “caught up into love, and taught the whole/Of life in a new rhythm” (Sonnets, 7:6-7). She also wonders what she can give her lover in return in exchange for “the gold/And purple of thine heart” which he has offered to her, fearing that “frequent tears have run/The colors from my life, and left so dead/And pale a stuff, it were not fitly done/To give the same as pillow to thy head” (Sonnets, 8:2-3, 10-13). Despite her misgivings, however, the speaker ultimately concludes that “love, mere love, is beautiful indeed/And worthy of acceptation” (Sonnets, 10:1-2). Moreover, when the speaker at last admits to the lover, “I love thee—in thy sight,/I stand transfigured, glorified aright,/With conscience of the new rays that proceed/Out of my face towards thine” (Sonnets, 10:6-9). Her love transforms her into a being worthy of love.
Having openly acknowledged her love for her suitor, the speaker takes her first steps towards accepting their relationship. She urges her lover not to love her for such changeable things as “her smile—her look—her way/Of speaking gently” but to “love me for love’s sake, that evermore/Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity” (Sonnets, 14:3-4, 13-14). As their romance progresses, the lovers exchange tokens—in this case, locks of hair—and rejoice in their growing bond, which compensates for whatever differences exist between them. Midway through the sequence, the speaker reaches a point where she can fully commit herself to life because of her love: “As brighter ladies do not count it strange,/For love, to give up acres and degree,/I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange/My near sweet view of Heaven, for earth with thee!” (Sonneti, 23:11-14).
The latter half of Sonnets from the Portuguese reflect mainly positive developments in the lovers’ ongoing relationship. As their feelings for each other deepen and mature, the speaker reflects upon the changes love has wrought in her world. Even the life of the mind, which formerly contented her, seems inadequate compared to the love that has transformed her whole existence. She describes how, years ago, she “lived with visions for my company,/Instead of men and women” but when those bright visions faded, “Thou didst come—to be,/Beloved, what they seemed” (Sonnets, 26:1-2, 8-9). Her beloved provides her with “satisfaction of all wants:/Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame” (Sonnets, 26:13-14). The speaker feels her being increasingly twined in that of her lover; she enjoins him to call her by the “pet-name” she had in childhood and so “catch the early love up in the late” and thus become all in all to her (Sonnets, 33:12).
Despite the totality of her commitment to her lover, the speaker is occasionally troubled by fears that their love might not be strong enough to withstand the similarly strong pull of her home and family: “Shall I never miss/Home-talk and blessing and the common kiss/That comes to each in turn, nor count it strange,/When I look up to drop on a new range/Of walls and floors, another home than this?” (Sonnets, 35:2-6). Nonetheless, she remains determined to make the attempt, if he remains constant: “Open thine heart wide,/And fold within the wet wings of thy dove” (Sonnets, 35:13-14).
The speaker’s love for her suitor and her confidence in their future together continue to grow, culminating in the moment when she asks herself and him the question, “How do I love thee?” (Sonnets, 43:1). The thoughts, ideals, and experiences of her life mingle in her reply: “1 love thee freely, as men strive for Right;/1 love thee purely, as they turn from Praise./I love thee with the passion put to use/In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith./I love thee with a love I seemed to lose/With my lost saints” (Sonnets, 43:7-12). Turning from contemplation of one world to the next, she goes on to assert that “if God choose,/I shall but love thee better after death” (Sonnets, 43:13-14).
In the final sonnet of the sequence, the speaker recalls the “many flowers” her beloved has brought to her during their courtship and now, in turn, she makes him an offering of her own: “So, in the like name of that love of ours,/Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too,/And which on warm and cold days I withdrew/From my heart’s ground” (Sonnets, 44:1, 5-8). Although the garden of her heart still contains “bitter weeds and rue” and requires his careful tending, she nonetheless entrusts what has bloomed in that place to his care: “[T]ake them, as I used to do/Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine/Instruct thine eyes to keep their colors true,/And tell thy soul their roots are left in mine” (Sonnets, 44:9, 11-14).
Women, love, and modernity
For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the prevailing image of Elizabeth Barrett Browning has been that of the ailing, fragile maiden lying on her couch, rescued by a dashing poet from the domestic tyranny of her overbearing father. While those elements certainly formed a part of the famous romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Barrett’s own role in the proceedings was by no means passive, nor was Sonnets from the Portuguese a conventionally sentimental tribute from the poet to her new husband. Death, morbidity, loneliness, and self-doubt resonate through the poems as much as love, joy, and awakening passion. And for a woman to express these emotions as nakedly as Barrett does through her female speaker was in itself an innovation, during a period when purity, modesty, and reticence were expected of the “womanly” (middle-class) woman. Her female speaker was, moreover innovative in terms of Barrett Browning’s own poetry to date, as scholar Margaret Reynolds argues:
The Sonnets from the Portuguese mark a radical change in the character of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry, or rather in the character of Barrett Browning’s poet. In the earlier work, her first-person poetic persona is either male, as in Lady Geraldine’s Courtship, or is sexless, as in Λ Vision of Poets, so that she does not contravene the law of silence for women. In the Sonnets, however, a woman speaks and she speaks as a poet, the equal of a man poet, fit to barter and compete with him.
(Reynolds, p. 60)
The genre of poetry in which Barrett Browning chose to express these radical changes is also significant, as noted by literary scholar Angela Leighton:
To write a sonnet sequence is to trespass on a male domain. Dante, Petrarch, Sidney and Shakespeare are the eminent ‘grandfathers’ of this predominantly male line, and Barrett Browning is one of the first granddaughters. She thus enters into a tradition in which the roles are sexually delineated: there is the man who speaks, and there is the woman who is admired, described, cajoled and pleaded with from a distance. . . . Barrett Browning must not only reverse the roles, but she must also be sensitive to the fact that Robert was a lover and a poet in his own right, and disinclined to be cast in the role of the superior muse.
(Leighton, pp. 98-99)
Barrett Browning’s version of the sonnet sequence thus does not cast the woman solely as the lover who entreats a distant male beloved to
THE SONNET FORM
Popular since the fourteenth century, the sonnet consists of a single stanza of 14 lines in iambic pentameter—five metric feet in which an unstressed syllable is fallowed by a stressed syllable—connected by an intricate rhyme scheme. The two most popular forms are the Italian (or Petrarchan) and English (or Shakespearean) sonnet. The Italian sonnet form contains an octave rhyming abbaabba followed by a sestet rhyming cdecde or cdcdcd. Frequently, the octave puts forth a problem or situation, which is then resolved in the sestet. By contrast, the English sonnet consists of three quatrains (abab cdcd eief), followed by a couplet (gg), which gives ân epigrammatic turn lo the subject explored in the preceding quatrains. White both forms of sonnet have been utilized by generations of poets, it has been argued that the Italian sonnet is the more challenging of the two forms for English speakers to master. Elizabeth Barrett Browning employs the Italian sonnet form throughout Sonnets from the Portuguese. In sensibility, however, she was far more like her English literary predecessors, especially William Shakespeare and) ohn Milton (see Milton’s Paradise Lost in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). While most sonneteers—including Petrarch, Sidney, and Spenser—wrote about their idealized beloveds, Shakespeare, Donne, and Barrett Browning often spoke directly to their lovers, engaging them in discussion and debate.
return her affections. Instead, the woman speaker is both subject and object in the poems. She is the speaker and sonneteer but, at the same time, she is also the one who inspires love in her poet suitor, love that she is, if not unwilling, then, reluctant to accept: “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!” (Sonnets, 9:6-10).
Yet for all her apparent self-abnegation, the speaker knows herself to be capable of passion and power, despite the sorrows that have blighted her life. Comparing her “heavy heart” to Electra’s sepulchral urn that supposedly held the ashes of her dead brother, she reveals both those sorrows and the potential for passion to her lover: “Behold and see/What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,/And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn/Through the ashen greyness” (Sonnets, 5:1, 6-10). The “red wild sparkles” of passion could be stamped out by her suitor’s foot if he scorns them, but if blown to new life, she warns, those few embers could ignite a powerful and dangerous blaze and “those laurels on thine head,/O my Beloved, will not shield thee so,/That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred/The hair beneath” (Sonnets, 5:11-14).
The turning point of the sequence, Sonnet 10, also represents a marked departure from poetic tradition. Despite her qualms, the speaker acknowledges the beauty of love and accepts it in this pivotal sonnet: Her love, she says, “is fire” (Sonnets, 10:5). The speaker’s revelation in this sonnet alone distinguishes Sonnets from the Portuguese from its poetic predecessors, in which declarations of mutual love are eternally deferred. Moreover, as the lovers’ relationship matures and approaches romantic fulfillment, Barrett’s sonnet sequence becomes, increasingly, the product not only of her sex but of her particular time.
Like almost all Victorian amatory sequences, and unlike most Renaissance ones, [Sonnets from the Portuguese] assumes that marriage—the social affirmation of love, the affective bond holding society together—is love’s proper end. . By surrendering to love, the speaker is repudiating (as many Victorian poets felt it necessary to do) art bred in isolation. . . . And as in most Victorian sequence poems, lyric utterance is set in a context of humdrum, unromantic, unheroic, everyday life.
(Mermin, p. 130)
This celebration of the ordinary harks back not to Petrarch or to Shakespeare but to far more recent poets, to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the turn of the nineteenth century (see Lyrical Ballads in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times).
Given her familiarity with classical and English literature, Barrett Browning was likely aware of the ways in which her sonnet sequence differed from those of her literary “grandfathers.” Indeed, if a letter composed early in her correspondence with Browning is any indication, she may have deliberately reinvented the genre to create a new poetry more suited to her day:
I am inclined to think that we want new forms. as well as thoughts—The old gods are dethroned. Why should we go back to the antique moulds . . . classical moulds, as they are so improperly called. . . . Let us all aspire to Life—& let the dead bury their dead. If we have but courage to face these conventions, to touch this love ground we shall take strength from it instead of losing it. . For there is poetry everywhere . . . the ‘treasure’ (see the old fable) lies all over the field.
(Barrett Browning in Karlin, p. 36)
Sources and literary context
The autobiographical nature of Sonnets from die Portuguese was no secret to the Brownings themselves. In 1849, while the couple were living in Pisa, Elizabeth informed her husband, depressed over the recent death of his mother, that she had once written some poems about him, and she showed them to him. She described Browning’s reaction to the poems as “touched and pleased” and before long, he was encouraging her to have them published (Barrett Browning in Forster, p. 237). Because Elizabeth felt the poems were too personal to be published under her own name, the Brownings decided to disguise the sonnet sequence as a translation. They chose the title Sonnets from the Portuguese for two reasons: Browning’s nickname for Elizabeth—because of her olive complexion—was “my little Portuguese,” and he was intrigued by her earlier poem, “Catarina to Camoêns,” which dealt with a Portuguese poet and his beloved.
Sonnets from the Portuguese helped to revive the sonnet sequence, a literary genre that had flourished during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. The Italian poet, Petrarch, is usually credited with originating the genre through a series of sonnets that explored his undying and unrequited love for the beautiful but married Laura. Many Elizabethan poets emulated Petrarch by writing linked sonnets that depicted the various aspects of a relationship between lovers; the most famous of these Elizabethan sonnet sequences include Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1580), Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti (1595), and William Shakespeare’s untitled sonnets, which appear to be addressed, alternately, to a handsome young man and a beguiling dark woman. After several centuries in eclipse, the sonnet form and sequence became popular again during the nineteenth century. William Wordsworth’s The River Duddon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The House of Life, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, and Christina Rossetti’s Monna Innominata are all examples of this revived poetic genre. Sonnets from the Portuguese, however, was the first sonnet sequence, written by a woman, to give the woman’s perspective on the relationship between lovers. Moreover, Sonnets from the Portuguese was one of the few sonnet sequences that ended happily, with the lovers achieving fulfillment rather than disappointment.
Sonnets from the Portuguese was published in Barrett Browning’s Poems in 1850. At the time, the volume attracted little critical notice, perhaps because it contained much reprinted material. Most of the reviews that it did inspire were positive, with the lone exception of the one from the Spectator, which complained, “Mrs Browning has given no single instance of her ability to compose finished works. Diffuse-ness, obscurity, and exaggeration, mar even the happiest efforts of her genius” (Spectator in Taplin, pp. 238-239). Other reviewers were more enthusiastic. H. F. Chorley, writing for the Athenaeum, declared, “Mrs. Browning is probably, of her sex, the first imaginative writer England has produced in any age:—she is, beyond comparison, the first poetess of her own” (Chorley in Taplin, p. 237). Elizabeth scoffed at the “of her sex”—faint praise indeed. The English Review similarly asserted that Barrett Browning held “high rank among the bards of England” and noted “her especial beauties—in the combination of romantic wildness with deep, true tenderness and most singular power” (English Review in Ta-plin, p. 237).
More specifically, the reviewer for the Examiner wrote that Sonnets from the Portuguese comprised a “remarkable series,” though, as the Brownings had intended, he seemed unaware of the autobiographical significance. The critic for Fraser’s Magazine was similarly misled by the title but nonetheless appreciated the unique quality of the sonnets, remarking, “From the Portuguese they may be: but their life and earnestness must prove Mrs. Browning either to be the most perfect of all known translators, or to have quickened with her own spirit the framework of another’s thoughts, and then modestly declined the honour which was really her own” (Fraser’s Magazine in Taplin, p. 238). Full-fledged acknowledgement of the poems’ prowess came from a knowing audience, though, to whom they were originally directed. Robert Browning proclaimed them “the finest sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare’s” (Browning in Radley, p. 90).
The sequence become better known and more widely praised after Barrett Browning’s death in 1861. The following year, a critic for the Christian Examiner wrote oí Sonnets from the Portuguese, “Such purity, sweet humility, lofty self-abnegation, and impassioned tenderness have never before found utterance in verse. Shakespeare’s sonnets, beautiful as they are, cannot be compared with them, and Petrarch’s seem commonplace beside them” (Christian Examiner in Taplin, pp. 408-409). By the end of the nineteenth century, Sonnets from the Portuguese had secured a place in the affection of late-Victorian readers and critics. In his Victorian Poets (1895), Edmund Clarence Stedman ranked Sonnets from the Portuguese among
the finest subjective poetry in our literature . . . it is no sacrilege to say that their music is showered from a higher and purer atmosphere than that of the Swan of Avon. . . . Mrs. Browning’s Love Sonnetsare the outpourings of a woman’s tenderest emotions, at an epoch when her art was most mature and her whole nature exalted by a passion that to such a being comes but once and for all. Here, indeed, the singer rose to her height. Here she is absorbed in rapturous utterance, radiant and triumphant with her own joy.
(Stedman, p. 137)
—Pamela S. Loy
Bristow, Joseph, ed. Victorian Women Poets: Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti. London: Macmillan, 1995.
Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Love Poems. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
Donaldson, Sandra, ed. Critical Essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999.
Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Hellerstein, Erna Olafson, Leslie Parker Hume, and Karen M. Offen, eds. Victorian Women. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981.
Karlin, Daniel, ed. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: The Courtship Correspondence 1845-1846. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
Leighton, Angela. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Mitchell, Sally. Daily Life in Victorian England. West-port: Greenwood, 1996.
Porter, Charlotte, and Helen A. Clarke, eds. The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Vol. 2. New York: AMS, 1973.
Radley, Virginia L. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Boston: Twayne, 1972.
Reynolds, Margaret. “Love’s Measurements in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.” In Studies in Browning and His Circle 21 (21 November 1977): 53-67.
Stedman, Edmund Clarence. Victorian Poets. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895.