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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 10

Updated on June 18, 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 10

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “ Sonnet 10 ” from Sonnets from the Portuguese finds the speaker’s attitude evolving. She reasons that if God can love his lowliest creatures, surely a man can love a flawed woman, and in so doing can overcome the flaws through the power of love.

Sonnet 10: Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed

Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed
And worthy of acceptation. Fire is bright,
Let temple burn, or flax; an equal light
Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed:
And love is fire. And when I say at need
I love thee … mark! … I love thee—in thy sight
I stand transfigured, glorified aright,
With conscience of the new rays that proceed
Out of my face toward thine. There’s nothing low
In love, when love the lowest: meanest creatures
Who love God, God accepts while loving so.
And what I feel, across the inferior features
Of what I am, doth flash itself, and show
How that great work of Love enhances Nature’s.

Reading of Sonnet 10

Commentary

The speaker of sonnet 10 is beginning to reason that despite her flaws, the transformative power of love can change her negative, dismissive attitude.

First Quatrain: The Value of Love

Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed
And worthy of acceptation. Fire is bright,
Let temple burn, or flax; an equal light
Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed:

The speaker begins to focus on the value of love, finding that emotion to be “beautiful” and even “worthy of acceptation.” She likens love to fire and finds love to be “bright” as love is also a flame in the heart and mind.

She contends that the power of fire and the light it emits is the same regardless of the fuel that feeds it, whether “from cedar-plank or weed.” Thus she is beginning to believe that her suitor’s love can burn as bright if she is the motivation, although she considers herself the weed rather than the cedar-plank.

Second Quatrain: Fire and Love

And love is fire. And when I say at need
I love thee … mark! … I love thee—in thy sight
I stand transfigured, glorified aright,
With conscience of the new rays that proceed

The speaker continues the metaphorical comparison of love to fire and boldly states, “And love is fire.” She audaciously proclaims her love for her suitor and contends that by saying she loves him, she transforms her lowly self and “stand[s] transfigured, glorified aright.”

The awareness of the vibrations of love that exude from her being causes her to be magnified and made better than she normally believes herself to be.

First Tercet: God's Love

Out of my face toward thine. There’s nothing low
In love, when love the lowest: meanest creatures
Who love God, God accepts while loving so.

The speaker avers, “There's nothing low / In love.” God loves all of his creatures, even the lowliest. The speaker is evolving toward true acceptance of her suitor’s attention, but she has to convince her doubting mind that there exists good reason for her to change her outlook.

Obviously, the speaker has no intention of changing her beliefs in her own low station in life. She carries her past in the heart, and all of her tears and sorrows have permanently tainted her own view of herself. But she can turn toward acceptance and allow herself to be loved, and through that love she can, at least, bask in its joy as a chilled person would bask in sunshine.

Second Tercet: The Transformative Powers of Love

And what I feel, across the inferior features
Of what I am, doth flash itself, and show
How that great work of Love enhances Nature’s.

The speaker will continue to think of herself as inferior, but because she can now believe that one as illustrious as her suitor can love her, she is comprehending the transformative powers of love. She insists on her inferiority, saying, “what I feel across the inferior features / Of what I am.” But she also insists that “the great work of Love” is such a powerful force that it can “enhance[ ] Nature’s.”

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    22 months ago from U.S.A.

    Fernando, I'm so glad my Hub helped. You are welcome. Always happy when my work offers some useful information to others. Have a blessed day!

  • profile image

    Fernando 

    22 months ago

    Gee wiz this was helpful. First real analysis of this poem that I've found. Thank you so much!

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