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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 36: "When we met first and loved, I did not build"

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 36

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 36" from Sonnets from the Portuguese reveals the speaker’s apprehension that the first moments of a new love might prove to be illusive; thus she refuses to believe unwaveringly in the possibility that love had arrived.

This speaker always remains aware that she must protect her heart from disaster. And at this point in their relationship, she knows that she could suffer a terrible broken heart if the relationship fails to flourish.

Sonnet 36

When we met first and loved, I did not build
Upon the event with marble. Could it mean
To last, a love set pendulous between
Sorrow and sorrow? Nay, I rather thrilled,
Distrusting every light that seemed to gild
The onward path, and feared to overlean
A finger even. And, though I have grown serene
And strong since then, I think that God has willed
A still renewable fear … O love, O troth …
Lest these enclaspèd hands should never hold,
This mutual kiss drop down between us both
As an unowned thing, once the lips being cold.
And Love, be false! if he, to keep one oath,
Must lose one joy, by his life’s star foretold.

Reading of Sonnet 36

Commentary

The speaker again is demonstrating her inability to fully accept the love relationship that is growing with her belovèd suitor.

First Quatrain: Love Between Sorrow

When we met first and loved, I did not build
Upon the event with marble. Could it mean
To last, a love set pendulous between
Sorrow and sorrow? Nay, I rather thrilled,

The speaker says that when she and her belovèd first met and love began to flower, she did not readily accept that the feelings were genuine; she refused, "to build / Upon the event with marble." She questions whether love could endure for her "between / Sorrow and sorrow."

The reader is by now quite familiar with the sadness, pain, and grief the speaker has suffered in her life and that she continues to suffer these maladies. For this melancholy speaker to accept the balm of love remains very difficult. Her doubts and fears continue to remain more real to her than these new, most cherished feelings of love and affection.

Second Quatrain: Continuing Fear

Distrusting every light that seemed to gild
The onward path, and feared to overlean
A finger even. And, though I have grown serene
And strong since then, I think that God has willed

Answering her own question in the negative, the speaker asserts that she preferred to remain, "Distrusting every light that seemed to gild" the progression toward the loving relationship. The speaker's fears continues to prompt her to hold back her heart because she "feared to overlean / A finger even."

Quite uncharacteristically, the speaker admits that since that early time at the very beginning of this love relationship, she has, indeed, "grown serene / And strong." Such an admission is difficult for the personality of this troubled speaker, but she does remain aware that she must somehow come to terms with her evolving growth.

First Tercet: Skepticism for Protection

A still renewable fear … O love, O troth …
Lest these enclaspèd hands should never hold,
This mutual kiss drop down between us both

Still, even though this wary speaker is cognizant of her growth in terms of serenity and strength, she believes that God has instilled in her the ability to remain somewhat skeptical in order to protect herself from certain torture at having been wrong about the relationship.

This speaker knows that if, "these enclaspèd hands should never hold," she would be devastated if she had not protected her heart with those doubts. If the "mutual kiss" should "drop between us both," this ever-thinking speaker is sure her life would be filled with even more grief and sorrow.

Second Tercet: Wrenching Feeling

As an unowned thing, once the lips being cold.
And Love, be false! if he, to keep one oath,
Must lose one joy, by his life’s star foretold.

The speaker then spreads across the border of the tercets the wrenching feeling that her words are causing her. This melancholy speaker feels that she must give utterance to these thoughts, but she knows that they will cause pain, even to her belovèd. But if, "Love, be false," then she simply must acknowledge that possibility for both their sakes.

The speaker anticipates the likelihood that she might have to "lose one joy" which may already be written in her stars, and not knowing which joy that might be, she must remain watchful that it might be the very love she is striving so mightily to protect.

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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