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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 5: "I lift my heavy heart up solemnly"

Updated on March 26, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 5

The speaker's lack of confidence in her own value as a person and poet makes her doubt that budding relationship will continue to blossom. Her little dramas continue to exude her lack of self esteem, while she also makes it known the she holds her beloved in the highest regard. Likely she feels unworthy of such an accomplished individual.

Sonnet 5

I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. 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. If thy foot in scorn
Could tread them out to darkness utterly,
It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up,... 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. Stand further off then! Go.

Reading of Sonnet 5

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 5 focuses on her lack of confidence that her budding relationship will continue to grow.

First Quatrain: Dramatic Ashes

I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see

In the first quatrain of Sonnet 5 from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker likens her heart to the urn held by Electra, who thought she was holding the ashes of her dead brother Orestes in Sophocles' tragic Greek play, Electra.

The speaker is raising the "sepulchral urn" of her heart to her beloved, and then suddenly, she spills the ashes at his feet. She commands him to look at those ashes.

The speaker has established in her opening sonnets that not only is she but a humble poet shielded from the eyes of society, but she is also one who has suffered greatly from physical maladies as well as mental anguish. She has suffered thinking that she may never have the opportunity to love and be loved.

Second Quatrain: Dropping Grief

What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,
And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn
Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn
Could tread them out to darkness utterly

The speaker continues the metaphor of her heart as filled with ashes by commanding her beloved to look and see, "What a great heap of grief lay hid in me." She metaphorically compares the ashes held within the urn of her heart to her grief.

Now she has dropped those ashes of grief at the feet of her beloved. But she notices that there seem to be some live coals in the heap of ashes; her grief is still burning "through the ashen greyness." She speculates that if her beloved could stomp out the remaining burning coals of her grief, that might be all well and good.

First Tercet: Burning Coals of Grief

It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up,... those laurels on thine head,

If, however, he does not tread on those burning coals of grief and merely remains still beside her, the wind will stir up those ashes, and they may land on the head of the beloved, a head that is garlanded with laurels.

It will be remembered that the speaker has, in the two preceding sonnets, made it clear that her beloved has prestige and the attention of royalty. Thus, he is as one who is declared a winner with the reward of laurels.

Second Tercet: In the Throes of Sorrow

O My beloved, will not shield thee so,
That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
The hair beneath. Stand further off then! Go.

The speaker avers that even those laurels will not be able to protect his hair from being singed, once the wind has blown those live coals upon his head. She therefore bids him, "Stand farther off then! go."

In the throes of incredible sorrow, the speaker is awakening slowly to the possibility that she can be loved by someone whom she deems her superior in every way. Her head is bare, not garlanded with laurels as is his.

She must give him leave to forsake her because she believes that he will do so after he fully comprehends who she really is. Although she, of course, hopes he will protest and remain beside her, she does not want to deceive herself, falsely believing that he will, in fact, remain with her.

The Brownings

Source

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.

EBB Sonnets from the Portuguese

Which of the following sonnets do you especially favor?

See results

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

    I'll see what I can do. I'm sure I want to critique a colleague, but if anything specific stands out, I'll let you know.

  • Mihnea Andreescu profile image

    Mihnea-Andrei Andreescu 2 years ago from Tilburg

    Thank you! It is an honor.Please tell me if it needs any improvement.I much apreciate objective criticism.I am very strict to myself when it comes to poetry.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

    Interesting. I'll have to check out your work. Thanks for the info!

  • Mihnea Andreescu profile image

    Mihnea-Andrei Andreescu 2 years ago from Tilburg

    You are welcome.My own poems are inspired from Bacovia's work.Other influences are Edgar Alan Poe ,Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thanks for the link, looks like an informative site!

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

    I have heard of Andrei Codrescu, but not acquainted with much of his work. I'll have to check him out, as well as George Bacovia. Thanks for the info.

  • Mihnea Andreescu profile image

    Mihnea-Andrei Andreescu 2 years ago from Tilburg

    I recommend George Bacovia-the Romanian Symbolist poet.I hope you will like his work. http://www.aboutromania.com/bacovia.html

  • Mihnea Andreescu profile image

    Mihnea-Andrei Andreescu 2 years ago from Tilburg

    Oh,I got that wrong.I remember seeing one of her poems on Academy of American Poets web page and I thought she was American.Do you happen to know any Romanian poets as well?

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

    Mihnea, you are very welcome. As a former teacher, I am quite accustomed to "schooling" folks! Actually, Elizabeth Barrett Browning is British, not American. My specialty is Eastern philosophy/poetry also; although my PhD concentration was British Lit.

    Interesting factoid about John Berryman: he was born "John Smith."

  • Mihnea Andreescu profile image

    Mihnea-Andrei Andreescu 2 years ago from Tilburg

    Wow .I did not know this.Thank you for schooling me a bit on American poets here.I am currently learning more about American poets.I am traditionally accustomed to eastern and western European poets but became fascinated with some American poets like Edgar Allan Poe,Elizabeth Browning ,the school of confessionalist poetry (Sexton,Plath,Berryman) and ultimately Symbolist Hayden Carruth,

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, Mihnea, for your response. Yes, interesting poet, Carruth. Galway Kinnell made a fascinating observation about Hayden Carruth: “This is not a man who sits down to ‘write a poem’; rather, some burden of understanding and feeling, some need to know, forces his poems into being. Thoreau said, ‘Be it life or death, what we crave is reality.' So it is with Carruth.”

  • Mihnea Andreescu profile image

    Mihnea-Andrei Andreescu 2 years ago from Tilburg

    Very interesting I love Elizabeth Browning.I write Symbolist free-form poetry and wrote some sonnets as well.My favourite American poet is Hayden Carruth.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, Pat! EBB is certainly one of the best sonneteers. Thanks for the angels!

  • pstraubie48 profile image

    Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

    Elizabeth's works are among some that I do like to return to to reread. I do wish I had had some of this insight when I read her work in tenth and eleventh grade.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Angels are once again on the way to you ps

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