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Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 18: "I never gave a lock of hair away"

Updated on March 27, 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 18

Sonnet 18 from Sonnets from the Portuguese reveals the speaker musing on her feelings as she affords her lover the gift of a lock of her hair, of which she emphasizes the purity in that no other man has touched it.

The tentative and lonely speaker continues to create little dramas in her developing relationship with her friend and belovèd, who happens to be a fellow poet. No doubt her lover appreciates her musing and feels a great sense of pride in having her composing for his benefit.

Sonnet 18

I never gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,
Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully,
I ring out to the full brown length and say
'Take it.' My day of youth went yesterday;
My hair no longer bounds to my foot's glee,
Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree,
As girls do, any more: it only may
Now shade on two pale cheeks the mark of tears,
Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside
Through sorrow's trick. I thought the funeral-shears
Would take this first, but Love is justified,—
Take it thou,---finding pure, from all those years,
The kiss my mother left here when she died.

Reading of Sonnet 18

Commentary

In sonnet 18, the speaker is dramatizing a little ritual of the simple act of giving a lock of her to her lover.

First Quatrain: A Virgin Lock

I never gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,
Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully,
I ring out to the full brown length and say

The speaker claims that she has never given any other man a lock of her hair; it seems to be such a special act that she is now conferring on her lover this special lock. She has excised a few strands that extend "to the full brown length."

The strands rest upon her "fingers" as she philosophically dramatizes the event by saying a few words over them. The object takes on a status of a sacred relic as she seem almost prayerful in handling them.

This speaker is always full of drama, from agonizing over her miseries to proclaiming her now vast love for her belovèd. Her life is the stuff and substance of her poetry, and she lives it in each moment.

Second Quatrain: Justifying the Gift

'Take it.' My day of youth went yesterday;
My hair no longer bounds to my foot's glee,
Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree,
As girls do, any more: it only may

The speaker hands the hair to her lover and commands him, "Take it." She then reveals that she is no longer young, for "my day of youth went yesterday." She no longer runs and jumps and skips thus causing her hair to jostle about as she did when she was a child.

The speaker no longer performs little rituals with it such as offering it to birds to build their nests. She needs to justify giving away this lock of hair, just as her personality motivates her to justify everything she does and feels.

First Tercet: Covering Her Poor Cheeks

Now shade on two pale cheeks the mark of tears,
Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside
Through sorrow's trick. I thought the funeral-shears

In the first tercet of the sestet, the speaker then divulges the use to which she has long put her locks of hair, and it is not surprising that that use would be bound somehow to her sorrow with which has lived her entire life.

The speaker does not disappoint as she reveals that the only use for those locks of brown hair is to cover her poor cheeks which are so often streaked with tears. She has shed tears so often and so profusely that she hardly recognizes herself without those streak running down her face.

Those locks of hair have simply hung down over those tear-stained cheeks, and they have learned to hide the sorrow that urges those tears. She has become habituated to tilting her head a certain way to encourage the hair to act as a curtain to shield her sadness.

Second Tercet: Her Chaste Hair

Would take this first, but Love is justified,—
Take it thou,---finding pure, from all those years,
The kiss my mother left here when she died.

The speaker’s final dramatic pose reveals that she thought some mortician would be the one to cut her hair. But then her lover came along and "justified" her cutting it herself and presenting it to him.

The speaker then discloses that the hair is as pure as the day her mother left "the kiss" on it before she died. She is repeating and emphasizing her claim that no other man has had access to her chaste hair.

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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