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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 16

Updated on June 18, 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 16

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnet 16" from Sonnets from the Portuguese dramatizes her nearly complete acceptance of the love from her "noble" suitor. She creates a colorful metaphor to elucidate her feelings.

Sonnet 16

And yet, because thou overcomest so,
Because thou art more noble and like a king,
Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling
Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow
Too close against thine heart henceforth to know
How it shook when alone. Why, conquering
May prove as lordly and complete a thing
In lifting upward, as in crushing low!
And as a vanquished soldier yields his sword
To one who lifts him from the bloody earth,
Even so, Belovèd, I at last record,
Here ends my strife. If thou invite me forth,
I rise above abasement at the word.
Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth.

Reading of Sonnet 16

Commentary

The speaker can finally be seen as capitulating to the all consuming love that she has tried to deny herself, allowing herself only a speck of doubt.

First Quatrain: Overcoming Fears and Doubts

And yet, because thou overcomest so,
Because thou art more noble and like a king,
Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling
Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow

The speaker, picking up from prior adversity, can now give in to her belovèd’s advances because he has, at last, been able to overcome her fears and doubts. She again likens him to royalty: "thou art more noble and like a king, / Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling / Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow."

Her lover has the kingly powers of protecting even a doubtful heart such as her own. He can place his royal purple cape around her shoulders and affect the very beating of her heart.

Second Quatrain: A Fearful Heart

Too close against thine heart henceforth to know
How it shook when alone. Why, conquering
May prove as lordly and complete a thing
In lifting upward, as in crushing low!

As her heart beats close to his, the speaker finds it difficult to grasp that it once felt so afraid of life and living when it found itself solitary and isolated. She has discovered that she can, in fact, imagine herself lifted from her self-imposed prison of melancholy. She can succumb to upward mobility as readily as she did to the downward spiral, "as in crushing low!"

First Tercet: A Bizarre Comparison

And as a vanquished soldier yields his sword
To one who lifts him from the bloody earth,
Even so, Belovèd, I at last record,

The speaker then dramatically and bizarrely compares her situation metaphorically to a "soldier" who surrenders in battle as "one who lifts him from the bloody earth." The enemy becomes nurturing once his foe has been vanquished. But for her, the battle was very real, and thus the metaphor remains quite apt. Thus she can finally and completely surrender.

Second Tercet: Reserving a Space to Doubt

Here ends my strife. If thou invite me forth,
I rise above abasement at the word.
Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth.

The speaker's handing over of weapons and defensive mechanisms is accompanied by her revelation that "here ends my strife." True to character, however, she must at least reserve some bit of possible future failure by stating her declaration in a conditional clause, "if thou invite me forth." She emphasizes "thou," to make it clear that her belovèd is the only one to whom she could ever say these things.

The speaker has quite likely almost one hundred per cent become convinced that he has invited her, but she still feels that she has to keep any downturn in her sights. But if he does, in fact, keep that invitation open for her, she will be able to transcend her pain and rise above all the sorrow that has kept her abased for so many years.

Once again, the speaker is giving him a great deal of power as she suggests that as her new attitude will "make thy love larger," it will also "enlarge my worth." Thus loving him will increase her own value, not in large part because, in her eyes, his value is as large as a king’s worth. His royalty will become hers.

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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