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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 28: "My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!"

Updated on March 25, 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 28

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 28" from Sonnets from the Portuguese dramatizes the speaker’s simple act of taking a bundle of love letters, loosening the string that holds them, and then reporting hints from each letter. Each one on which the speaker chooses to report reveals a step in the growing closeness of the two lovers from friendship to soul-mates.

Sonnet 28

My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which lose the string
And let them drop down on my knee to-night.
This said,—he wished to have me in his sight
Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand … a simple thing,
Yet I wept for it!—this, … the paper’s light …
Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed
As if God’s future thundered on my past.
This said, I am thine—and so its ink has paled
With lying at my heart that beat too fast.
And this … O Love, thy words have ill availed
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!

Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 28

Commentary

The speaker is looking at the love letters from her beloved and reacting to each stage in the development of their relationship.

First Quatrain: Living Letters

My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which lose the string
And let them drop down on my knee to-night.

The speaker exclaims, "My letters!" She has taken her bundle of letters in her hands and begins to report her reaction to their very existence. She avers that they are, in fact, nothing more than "dead paper, mute and white!" But because the speaker knows the history they hold, she announces that they appear "alive and quivering."

Of course, it is her trembling hands that make them "quiver," and she has untied the string that holds the letters together in a bundle; her "tremulous hands" then allow those letter to "drop down on her knee."

Second Quatrain: Each Letter Speaks

This said,—he wished to have me in his sight
Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand … a simple thing,
Yet I wept for it!—this, … the paper’s light …

In the second quatrain, the speaker begins to report what each letter says. The first one she selects tells her that her lover "wished to have me in his sight / Once, as a friend." Thus, in the beginning, the two experienced friendship, and she was delighted that he simply wanted to see her.

In the next letter she selects, he tells her that he wants to come and "touch [her] hand," and this day was "in spring." The romance of these image choices are rife with possibility, but she deems the situation, "a simple thing." On the other hand, simple though it might be, it makes her weep.

First Tercet: What God Adjudicates

Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed
As if God’s future thundered on my past.
This said, I am thine—and so its ink has paled

The next letter, whose paper is "light," tells her, "Dear, I love thee," to which she has a tremendously passionate reaction: "I sank and quailed / As if God’s future thundered on my past."

As the sonnet sequence has revealed, this speaker has lived a solitary, sorrowful life. The speaker's past now is being adjudicated by God, Who is pronouncing that her future will be the opposite of her past.

Second Tercet: Next to a Beating Heart

With lying at my heart that beat too fast.
And this … O Love, thy words have ill availed
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!

And the next letter tells her that he was hers. The speaker has treasured this one so dearly that she claims "its ink has paled / with lying at my heart that beat too fast." Figuratively, the speaker has kept this letter next to her beating heart, which has metaphorically lightened the ink.

The final letter excites the speaker so much that she cannot bring herself to repeat any part of it or even report a hint of what it says. The overall progression of the sonnet leaves the reader perfectly satisfied with the conclusion, despite the fact that she says not a word about what the letter held.

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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