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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 11: "And therefore if to love can be desert"

Updated on March 26, 2018
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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 11

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 11" from Sonnets from the Portuguese features the continued philosophizing of the obsessed speaker as she falls in love while trying to justify that love to herself and to her belovèd.

Sonnet 11

And therefore if to love can be desert,
I am not all unworthy. Cheeks as pale
As these you see, and trembling knees that fail
To bear the burden of a heavy heart,—
This weary minstrel-life that once was girt
To climb Aornus, and can scarce avail
To pipe now 'gainst the valley nightingale
A melancholy music,—why advert
To these things? O Belovèd, it is plain
I am not of thy worth nor for thy place!
And yet, because I love thee, I obtain
From that same love this vindicating grace,
To live on still in love, and yet in vain,—
To bless thee, yet renounce thee to thy face.

Reading of Sonnet 11

Commentary

First Quatrain: Berating Her Own Value

And therefore if to love can be desert,
I am not all unworthy. Cheeks as pale
As these you see, and trembling knees that fail
To bear the burden of a heavy heart,—

The speaker, who has so often berated her own value, now continues to evolve toward accepting the idea that she might, in fact, be "not all unworthy." She contends that if the ability to love can be deserved, as an award for goodness or service, she feels that it just might be possible for her to have enough importance to accept the love of one so obviously above her.

Again, however, she begins her litany of flaws; she has pale cheeks, and her knees tremble so that she can hardly "bear the burden of a heavy heart." She continues her string of self-deprecations into the second quatrain and first tercet.

Second Quatrain: To Accomplish Great Things

This weary minstrel-life that once was girt
To climb Aornus, and can scarce avail
To pipe now 'gainst the valley nightingale
A melancholy music,—why advert

The speaker has lived a "weary minstrel-life," and while she once thought of accomplishing great things, as Alexander the Great had taken Aornus, she now finds herself barely able to compose a few melancholy poems.

She finds it difficult even to compete "’gainst the valley nightingale," but she has also decided, while both thinking of and obsessing over these negative aspects of the life, to reconsider her possibilities. She realizes that she is merely distracting herself from more important issues.

First Tercet: Concentration on Negativity

To these things? O Belovèd, it is plain
I am not of thy worth nor for thy place!
And yet, because I love thee, I obtain

Thus the speaker asks herself, "why advert / / To these things?" Indeed, why concentrate on the past negativity, when such a glorious future has been heralded? She then directly addresses her suitor, claiming, "O Belovèd, it is plain / I am not of thy worth." She still insists on making it known how aware she is that she is not of her suitor’s station. However, she is now willing to consider that they might be able to grow a relationship.

Second Tercet: Advancing a Philosophical Position

From that same love this vindicating grace,
To live on still in love, and yet in vain,—
To bless thee, yet renounce thee to thy face.

The speaker advances an odd philosophical position that because she loves the man, that love will offer her "vindicating grace." Thus she can accept his love and love him while still allowing herself to believe that such a love is "in vain" and that she can still "bless" him with her love, while simultaneously she can "renounce [him] to [his] face."

The speaker's complex of accepting and rejecting allows her continue to believe she is both worthy yet somehow not quite worthy of this love. She cannot forsake the notion that she can never be equal to him, yet she can accept his love and the prospect that somehow, somewhere beyond her ability to grasp it is the possibility that despite all of her flaws, she ultimately is deserving of such a great and glorious love.

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

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