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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 13

Updated on September 22, 2017
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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


Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 13


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.

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.

First Quatrain: “And wilt thou have me fashion into speech”
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: “I drop at thy feet. I cannot teach”
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: “Nay, let the silence of my womanhood”
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: “And rend the garment of my life, in brief”
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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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