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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 34: "With the same heart, I said, I’ll answer thee"

Updated on March 28, 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 34

The character speaking in Barrett Browning's Sonnet 34 from Sonnets from the Portuguese has returned to her melancholy attitude. Now she is contrasting her happy, carefree childhood years to her very stern and serious life as a mature adult.

The speaker however is addressing her belovèd, imploring him to consider how important he is to her. As earnest, obedient, and steadfast as she was as a child, now her constancy with her belovèd is even more in evident. The speaker continues to build her case for deserving the love of such an accomplished man, whom she considers to be much above her own station in life.

Sonnet 34

With the same heart, I said, I’ll answer thee
As those, when thou shalt call me by my name—
Lo, the vain promise! is the same, the same,
Perplexed and ruffled by life’s strategy?
When called before, I told how hastily
I dropped my flowers or brake off from a game,
To run and answer with the smile that came
At play last moment, and went on with me
Through my obedience. When I answer now,
I drop a grave thought, break from solitude;
Yet still my heart goes to thee—ponder how—
Not as to a single good, but all my good!
Lay thy hand on it, best one, and allow
That no child’s foot could run fast as this blood.

Reading of Sonnet 34

Commentary

First Quatrain: The Necessity of Consistency

With the same heart, I said, I’ll answer thee
As those, when thou shalt call me by my name—
Lo, the vain promise! is the same, the same,
Perplexed and ruffled by life’s strategy?

The pensive speaker professes a need to be consistent; thus, she repeats the word “same” three times in three lines. She is of the "same heart” as she was earlier in her lifetime. She is called by “[her] name. But she is unsure about “life's strategy.” She is even "perplexed and ruffled” by it.

The speaker hopes to convince herself that love has merely continued to flow into around her life. She also demands from her new love relationship a constant heart as she lovingly and gently makes demands on her belovèd.

Second Quatrain: The Obedient One

When called before, I told how hastily
I dropped my flowers or brake off from a game,
To run and answer with the smile that came
At play last moment, and went on with me

Earlier in her lifetime, the melancholy speaker had played the obedient one, coming when called, dropping her “flowers” or leaving off her “game.” She ran to answer and even "with a smile” she appeared. Such behavior continued because of her dedication to obedience.

The speaker needs to be always consistent in her emotional responses. The static melancholy that she has experienced has programmed her to need a steady environment, even if she must create it from fragments of memory and emotional responses from the past.

First Tercet: Adult Life Different Details

Through my obedience. When I answer now,
I drop a grave thought, break from solitude;
Yet still my heart goes to thee—ponder how—

Now the specific details of life are a bit different. Instead of games and flowers, she answers from the position of having dropped “a grave thought” or a “break from solitude.” But her heart goes now always to the belovèd. She spills out a command before venturing on, telling her beloved to “ponder how . . . .”

Even though the details of her adult life are different, her emotional responses are essentially the same. Her same heart-responses continue to guide her. Her new love relationship has become even more important to her than any relationship before.

Second Tercet: From Childhood to Adulthood

Not as to a single good, but all my good!
Lay thy hand on it, best one, and allow
That no child’s foot could run fast as this blood.

The speaker then concludes that the good her beloved has done her is not one in one single area but in “all my good!” She asks her beloved to understand that as fleet foot as she was at obedience as child, she is much faster at running to her belovèd than she could have ever been in her earlier life.

The speaker's blood now runs faster and with more passion than ever her foot did as a child. As important to her as were her earlier loves, her new belovèd has become even more vital to her life.

The speaker's melancholy seems to be desperate for her lover to grasp his importance to her. Thus, she continues to compare and contrast her life's environments from childhood to maturity.

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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