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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 37

Updated on June 18, 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 37

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 37" from Sonnets from the Portuguese creates an appealing tension; while the speaker again denigrates herself, she is, nevertheless, asking her belovèd for forgiveness.

The speaker had simply behaved as would an innocent pagan who would offer only the humblest gift to her protector.

Sonnet 37

Pardon, oh, pardon, that my soul should make,
Of all that strong divineness which I know
For thine and thee, an image only so
Formed of the sand, and fit to shift and break.
It is that distant years which did not take
Thy sovranty, recoiling with a blow,
Have forced my swimming brain to undergo
Their doubt and dread, and blindly to forsake
Thy purity of likeness and distort
Thy worthiest love to a worthless counterfeit:
As if a shipwrecked Pagan, safe in port,
His guardian sea-god to commemorate,
Should set a sculptured porpoise, gills a-snort
And vibrant tail, within the temple-gate.

Reading of Sonnet 37

Commentary

The speaker is dramatically begging forgiveness for not immediately recognizing the true worth of her belovèd.

First Quatrain: Begging Pardon

Pardon, oh, pardon, that my soul should make,
Of all that strong divineness which I know
For thine and thee, an image only so
Formed of the sand, and fit to shift and break.

The speaker creates an emotional appeal to her belovèd, asking pardon for her soul and simultaneously again demonstrating the level of her perceived poverty of mind and spirit. This creative speaker implies that despite the "strong divineness," which she now recognizes the belovèd to possess, as being "for thine and thee," she was able to construct in her imagination only a much less exalted "image only so formed of the sand."

Such a hastily constructed image made of mere sand was unable to endure the test of time and therefore could not do other than "shift and break." Of course, the speaker does not intend her belovèd to gather from this dramatic description that his image has actually broken; she is merely once again offering proof of what her poor soul was able to grasp in its sullied state prior to their meeting.

Second Quatrain: Distortion Through Suffering

It is that distant years which did not take
Thy sovranty, recoiling with a blow,
Have forced my swimming brain to undergo
Their doubt and dread, and blindly to forsake

Again, the speaker recounts that having suffered for so many years has distorted her ability to recognize the true and the beautiful. She has needed constant tutoring in order to bring her perceptions in line with reality. This melancholy speaker has many times averred that she believes whole heartedly that her belovèd has a genuine heart, and she believes his love for her is nothing but pure gold.

Yet again, the speaker must protect her heart, in case her early perceptions are false. She blames her feeble thought process on her "swimming brain." Having been disoriented by the possibility of finding such a pure love, she could not keep that brain from entertaining thoughts of "doubt and dread."

First Tercet: Breaking Images

Thy purity of likeness and distort
Thy worthiest love to a worthless counterfeit:
As if a shipwrecked Pagan, safe in port,

Thus, the speaker now realizes that she was quite blind in, "forsak[ing] / / Thy purity." She, therefore, must ask "pardon" from having thought of his love as possibly nothing more than "a worthless counterfeit."

The speaker separates her thought over the second quatrain and first tercet. Thus, after she remarks, "blindly to forsake," she breaks the line to complete it in the second tercet. This construction gives the object of "to forsake" more emphasis after inserting the pause created by the break. The speaker then begins the construction of a simileic metaphor of a "shipwrecked Pagan," and again breaks the image over the two tercets for the same emphasis.

Second Tercet: A Poor Pagan

His guardian sea-god to commemorate,
Should set a sculptured porpoise, gills a-snort
And vibrant tail, within the temple-gate.

This poor Pagan, who is "safe in port," constructs "a sculptured porpoise, gills a-snort / And vibrant tail," to honor the "sea-god" who has protected her. While worthy in a very humble way, such a gift would not be appropriate to place "within the temple-gate." But the poor Pagan would not be able to know better, until she had been schooled in the finer arts in life.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

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

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    16 months ago from U.S.A.

    And be sure to read the sonnet to her along with your apology, Mark! Good luck! & have a great day.

    Thanks for the clever response!

  • Mark Tulin profile image

    Mark Tulin 

    16 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

    This poem makes me want to apologize to my wife for being such a shipwrecked pagan. Good stuff.

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