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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 13: "And wilt thou have me fashion into speech"

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 13

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 13" from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker attempts to respond to her suitor’s encouragement to transcribe her feelings for him in a poem, but she does not yet believe she is ready to plumb the depths of her feelings.

Sonnet 13

And wilt thou have me fashion into speech
The love I bear thee, finding words enough,
And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough,
Between our faces, to cast light on each?
I drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach
My hand to hold my spirit so far off
From myself—me—that I should bring thee proof
In words, of love hid in me out of reach.
Nay, let the silence of my womanhood
Commend my woman-love to thy belief,—
Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,
And rend the garment of my life, in brief,
By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,
Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.

Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 13

Commentary

The speaker in Sonnet 13 muses on the idea of composing a verse about her newly found emotion of love, but she hesitates for she fears touching the grief that still molests her.

First Quatrain: Should She Express Her Love?

And wilt thou have me fashion into speech
The love I bear thee, finding words enough,
And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough,
Between our faces, to cast light on each?

The speaker beseeches her beloved wondering if she should "fashion into speech" how she feels about him. She feels that she may not yet be ready to express verbally the feelings that are beginning to move her. Undoubtedly, she believes that outward verbal expression may hamper her unique emotions.

If she translated her feelings into words, she fears they would behave as a "torch" and would "cast light on each" of their faces. However, that would happen only if the wind did not blow out their fire. She believes she must protect her increasing emotion from all outside forces; therefore, she opens with a question. She cannot be certain that remaining silent is any longer the proper way to behave.

Second Quatrain: Unsteadied by Emotion

I drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach
My hand to hold my spirit so far off
From myself—me—that I should bring thee proof
In words, of love hid in me out of reach.

The speaker then dramatically asserts that she, "drop[s] at [his] feet"; she does this because she cannot remain steady in his presence, as she is overcome with emotion. She becomes so agitated with the notion of love, and she cannot calm down in order to write what might be coherent about her intense feelings.

The sonnet suggests that her beloved has asked the poet/speaker for a poem about her feelings for him; however, she believes that her love is so profoundly heartfelt that she may not be able to shapes its significance in words.

The speaker feels that she cannot perceive the appropriate images for they are, "hid in me out of reach." She feels that she must wait for a time when she has found enough tranquility to be able to "fashion into speech" the complex, deep feelings she is experiencing because of her love for this man.

First Tercet: Remaining Self-Aware

Nay, let the silence of my womanhood
Commend my woman-love to thy belief,—
Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,

The speaker concludes therefore that "the silence of [her] womanhood" will have to function to persuade him that she does possess those deep feeling of love for him. She confesses that she has remained a bit distant from her beloved, when she says she is "unwon." Although he has "wooed" her, she feels that she must keep a portion of her self out of sight for very deeply personal reasons. She must make sure she stays present and connected in her own self.

Second Tercet: Dramatizing the Depth of Pain

And rend the garment of my life, in brief,
By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,
Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.

The sonnet sequence has dramatized the depth of the pain and melancholy the speaker has endured her entire life-long. She is still suffering that same pain and sadness. She thus again reveals that if she too soon tries to place her feeling into a poem, she would perhaps only "convey [her heart’s] grief."

The speaker remains fearful of the notion that "a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude" could impede the power with which she is being propelled toward completely accepting the current relationship with her new-found belovèd.

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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