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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 35

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 35

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 35” from Sonnets from the Portuguese muses upon how she may react to leaving her childhood environment. No doubt the speaker is elated at the prospect of beginning a life with the man she adores so adamantly, but as the reader has watched this speaker, it has become clear that any change in her station will cause abundant anxiety as she navigates the course of her life.

Text of Sonnet 35

If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange
And be all to me? Shall I never miss
Home-talk and blessing and the common kiss
That comes to each in turn, nor count it strange,
When I look up, to drop on a new range
Of walls and floors, another home than this?
Nay, wilt thou fill that place by me which is
Filled by dead eyes too tender to know change?
That’s hardest. If to conquer love, has tried,
To conquer grief, tries more, as all things prove;
For grief indeed is love and grief beside.
Alas, I have grieved so I am hard to love.
Yet love me—wilt thou? Open thine heart wide,
And fold within the wet wings of thy dove.

Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 35

Commentary

The speaker is asking questions of her belovèd; she needs assurance of his love as a shelter from her anxiety as she prepares to move from her childhood home.

First Quatrain: With an Eye Toward the Future

If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange
And be all to me? Shall I never miss
Home-talk and blessing and the common kiss
That comes to each in turn, nor count it strange,

The speaker begins her inquiry as she seeks to ascertain whether her belovèd plans to abandon his own life context in order to live with her; she is, of course "leav[ing] all for [him]." The questioning speaker carries on with a further inquiry, wondering but also correctly believing that she will long for familiar events that currently and have always filled her life. She will miss such things as, "blessing," "home-talk," and "the common kiss."

The speaker then poses her question rather diplomatically in order to suggest that while she hopes she will not hanker back after her old home-life, she continues to harbor doubts about her ability to cut those ties so quickly and completely. The speaker then admits that she "count[s] it strange," thinking that she would feel otherwise as she leaves her previous residence.

Second Quatrain: To Remain Steady

When I look up, to drop on a new range
Of walls and floors, another home than this?
Nay, wilt thou fill that place by me which is
Filled by dead eyes too tender to know change?

The speaker then renders clarity for her missing the "walls and floors" that she has for so long remained accustomed to observing. For the speaker, the ordinary day to day observations and even noises around the home have become very significant in helping her remain truly steady in her view of reality.

This speaker knows that she is accustomed taking flights on mental wings that may sail her too far off from the here and now of daily life. Then a very vital question is posed: "wilt thou fill that place by me which is / Filled by dead eyes too tender to know change?" Having her beloved beside her, though, leads the speaker to believe that her environmental change will affect her much less traumatically than she might imagine.

Although the speaker feels that her own eyes "are too tender to know change," she can navigate the notion that with her lover's assistance, she will likely find adjusting to the new environment possible.

First Tercet: A Philosophical Leaning

That’s hardest. If to conquer love, has tried,
To conquer grief, tries more, as all things prove;
For grief indeed is love and grief beside.

In the first tercet, the speaker examines some philosophical leaning that has motivated her earlier questions. Subduing grief has been the speaker's most difficult task. She finds that she must also conquer love, and that is also difficult. However, most difficult has been her struggle with pain, sorrow, and that unending grief. She has discovered that "grief indeed is love and grief beside." If she were to lose her beloved or feel abandoned, her grief would compound beyond endurance.

This speaker has repeatedly agonized over every aspect of her life, sad fact after sad event. Her self-doubt has prevented her from immediate acceptance of the love of one she considers far above her station. This speaker's low-self esteem has caused much musing and wringing of hands. But she always remains dignified in her questions for understanding, and those questions to her belovèd demonstrate a strong mind despite its many doubts.

Second Tercet: Bold Speech

Alas, I have grieved so I am hard to love.
Yet love me—wilt thou? Open thine heart wide,
And fold within the wet wings of thy dove.

The speaker readily confesses that her long-time knowledge of sorrow has rendered her "hard to love." Thus she then demands that her lover, "Yet love me," and then once again retracts the command, converting it to a mild question, "wilt thou?" She has long lamented that she has grieved greatly in her lifetime; at times she seems nearly tipsy with her idiosyncratic ways, as she proposes again a command to her belovèd to, "Open thine heart wide, / And fold within the wet wings of thy dove."

The speaker finds any kind of bold speech beyond her capabilities, yet at the same time, she has convinced herself that she must unite with her deep soul, which she refers to as "dove." She must find her best self in order to continue in her relationship with her wonderful, magnificent belovèd.

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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