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Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 30: "I see thine image through my tears to-night"

Updated on March 28, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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 30

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 30" from Sonnets from the Portuguese dramatizes the regression of the speaker as she wonders if she has merely created dreamlike the love of her belovèd.

Sonnet 30 gives the speaker the space to indulge in doubts. She allows herself to go backward to her earlier stage of melancholy. To her distress, she is now contemplating the possibility, and to her the likelihood, that her lover is little more than a fantasy without a shred of reality.

Sonnet 30

I see thine image through my tears to-night,
And yet to-day I saw thee smiling. How
Refer the cause?—Beloved, is it thou
Or I, who makes me sad? The acolyte
Amid the chanted joy and thankful rite
May so fall flat, with pale insensate brow,
On the altar-stair. I hear thy voice and vow,
Perplexed, uncertain, since thou art out of sight,
As he, in his swooning ears, the choir’s Amen.
Beloved, dost thou love? or did I see all
The glory as I dreamed, and fainted when
Too vehement light dilated my ideal,
For my soul’s eyes? Will that light come again,
As now these tears come—falling hot and real?

Reading of Barrett Brownings' Sonnet 30

Commentary

The speaker is indulging herself in doubts as she contemplates the thought that her belovèd is little more than a fantasy.

First Quatrain: Remembering An Earlier Visit

I see thine image through my tears to-night,
And yet to-day I saw thee smiling. How
Refer the cause?—Beloved, is it thou
Or I, who makes me sad? The acolyte

The speaker addresses her beloved in absentia, whom she had seen earlier in the day. She remarks that she is shedding tears as she appears to be looking at his picture or perhaps just visualizing him as in a dream.

The now sorrowful speaker ponders the cause of her tears: "How / Refer the cause?" She asks him if she is the cause of her sadness or "is it thou?" The speaker then begins to imagine a ceremony, perhaps, the wedding of her belovèd and herself.

Second Quatrain: A Dream-State Visualization

Amid the chanted joy and thankful rite
May so fall flat, with pale insensate brow,
On the altar-stair. I hear thy voice and vow,
Perplexed, uncertain, since thou art out of sight,

In her dream-state, the speaker visualizes an attendant to the service, and "the acolyte" stumbles and falls "flat" "On the altar-stair." Such an unexpected accident provides not only a comic outrage but also a farcical intrusion into such the solemn occasion.

The speaker’s imagination is allowing her to hallucinate; no doubt such a nightmare comes from the hypersensitive nature of the speaker. The reader is aware of the intensity of this speaker’s emotions as she has gone from a nearly complete recluse with feelings of abandonment to the betrothed of a lover whom she deems much above her station.

The speaker then asserts that she "hear[s his] voice and vow." But his voice and vow are "perplexed" and "uncertain." And he is "out of sight." Again, the reader detects those old feelings of doubt that the speaker has suffered since the beginning of these adventures in romance.

First Tercet: Contemplating Possibilities

As he, in his swooning ears, the choir’s Amen.
Beloved, dost thou love? or did I see all
The glory as I dreamed, and fainted when

The speaker wonders if the stumbling attendant has been overwhelmed by "the choir’s Amen." And then she contemplates the possibility that she is dreaming this love that has become so important to her, and thus she questions, "Belovèd, dost thou love?"

Or perhaps, the agitated speaker has, in fact, dreamed it all, for she wonders, "did I see all / The glory as I dreamed?"

If it is nothing but a dream, it would be quite natural for her to stumble and fall; thus, it was not an assistant but the speaker herself who has stumbled and fallen upon those altar steps.

Second Tercet: To Believe Good Fortune

Too vehement light dilated my ideal,
For my soul’s eyes? Will that light come again,
As now these tears come—falling hot and real?

The speaker considers the possibility that again she has allowed herself to believe in the good fortune of finding a lover as brilliant as her belovèd seems to be. And now the fact may be that it was all a fantasy; perhaps, "[t]oo vehement light dilated my ideal."

The speaker cannot help but wonder and therefore she puts to him the question, "Will that light come again?" And the desperate speaker then compares that urgency to "these tears" that she now emphasizes are "falling hot and real?"

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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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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      Linda Sue Grimes 13 months ago from U.S.A.

      Hi, Louise--

      Thanks for the response. It's always gratifying to hear that something in my commentary has sparked a comment.

      Yes, hearing the words alongside the written text adds a layer of meaning that enhances understanding. I think all texts work that way to some extent, but it is especially true for poetry or any discourse that relies heavily on figurative language.

      Have a blessed day! Best of luck with your writing adventures!

      --lsg (mst)

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      Louise Powles 13 months ago from Norfolk, England

      I'm always glad that you add a video to the sonnets and poems you are talking about. It makes all the difference in understanding them when you can hear them. As always, I enjoyed reading your analysis of this sonnet.

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