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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 29

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 29

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 29" from Sonnets from the Portuguese dramatizes the closeness of the speaker with her belovèd. Even as her thoughts encircle him, she insists that ultimately she is so closely united with him that she need not think of him at all.

The speaker and her illustrious suitor share a special bond that keeps them together. The speaker of this sonnet permits her thoughts to create a drama featuring a tether that will bind the two lovers into a unique bond.

Sonnet 29

I think of thee!—my thoughts do twine and bud
About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,
Put out broad leaves, and soon there’s nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood
I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly
Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,
Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee
Drop heavily down,—burst, shattered, everywhere!
Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
I do not think of thee—I am too near thee.

Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 29

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 29 is now allowing her thoughts to create a tether that is ultimately unnecessary for two lovers who share such a unique bond.

First Quatrain: Vining Thoughts

I think of thee!—my thoughts do twine and bud
About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,
Put out broad leaves, and soon there’s nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.

The speaker addresses her belovèd, telling him, "I think of thee!" She then goes on to describe the scene that her thoughts of him create. The speaker's thoughts seem to resemble a vine that grows up wrapping itself around him as a Morning Glory vine would do—growing up to encircle a tree or fence post.

The speaker likens her foliage-thoughts to that vine wrapping "about a tree" and as it grows up the tree, it "put[s] out broad leaves." The leaves soon cover the tree until there is nothing visible except the vine. The wood of the tree has completely vanished under the cover of the vine.

Second Quatrain: Better than Her Thoughts

Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood
I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly
Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,

The speaker then shrieks in horror that her thoughts have obliterated her belovèd, for she does not wish for that to happen. The speaker then exclaims, addressing him, "O, my palm-tree," and insisting that she does not intend for the thoughts to obliterate him. She asserts that he is "dearer, better" than her thoughts.

The enraptured speaker then commands him to dislodge himself from her thoughts, so that he will once again shine through. He is strong as a tree is strong, and the wood of the tree should always shine through the obtrusive vines, regardless of how prolific their foliage.

First Tercet: A Living Presence

Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee
Drop heavily down,—burst, shattered, everywhere!

The speaker continues her command, insisting that he "rustle thy boughs and set they trunk all bare." She wants him to extricate himself from her thoughts and become the living presence that she so adores.

The excited speaker then insists that he break "these bands of greenery" that have encircled him, so that the greenery will fall in a heap, "heavily down,—burst, shattered, everywhere!" The speaker's little drama succinctly reveals the heated passion of her love for her belovèd.

Second Tercet: Affirming Passion

Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
I do not think of thee—I am too near thee.

Finally, the speaker affirms her passion by revealing how desirous she is of merely "breath[ing] within thy shadow a new air." Her thoughts that wrap and cover her belovèd merely represent the closeness she enjoys with him; she is so close to him that she need not think of him at all, because she insists, "I am too near thee." It is a closeness that she reveres as she revels in the magic of its ability to engender in her feelings of deep love and devotion.

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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