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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 39

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 39

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 39" from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker endeavors to leave her former diminished stature behind now that she is unconditionally loved by a wonderful man. The speaker is heaping all the credit upon her belovèd fiancé for her acquiring the ability to perceive her true nature despite all of the sorrow that years of pining away have left in her life.

Sonnet 39

Because thou hast the power and own’st the grace
To look through and behind this mask of me
(Against which years have beat thus blanchingly
With their rains), and behold my soul’s true face,
The dim and weary witness of life’s race,—
Because thou hast the faith and love to see,
Through that same soul’s distracting lethargy,
The patient angel waiting for a place
In the new Heavens,—because nor sin nor woe,
Nor God’s infliction, nor death’s neighborhood,
Nor all which others viewing, turn to go,
Nor all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed,—
Nothing repels thee, … Dearest, teach me so
To pour out gratitude, as thou dost, good!

Reading of Sonnet 39

Commentary

The speaker credits her belovèd with the delicious ability to see her true soul through all of the despair that the years have heaped upon her.

First Quatrain: Powers of Vision

Because thou hast the power and own’st the grace
To look through and behind this mask of me
(Against which years have beat thus blanchingly
With their rains), and behold my soul’s true face,

Addressing her belovèd, the speaker credits him with the ability to see "behind this mask of me." Throughout her life, the years of feeling sad and sorrowful have taken a tremendous toll on her physical beauty and mental attitude, but her new love is able to pierce through those superficialities to "behold [her] soul’s true face." The speaker implies that she has spent many hours crying; thus, she metaphorically transforms the tears and years into "rains" that have "beat thus blanchingly."

Second Quatrain: A Forlorn Life

The dim and weary witness of life’s race,—
Because thou hast the faith and love to see,
Through that same soul’s distracting lethargy,
The patient angel waiting for a place

The speaker avers that her forlorn life has been witnessed by her soul, which has become "dim and weary." The melancholy speaker then reports and concludes that her new love has both the "faith and love" that enable him to intuit the true nature or her soul. Though the speaker's soul has been abused in the senses as she experienced so much pain, doubt, and anguish and thus has grown dull with "distracting lethargy," it remained a "patient angel," biding its time for better things to come.

First Tercet: A New Blossoming

In the new Heavens,—because nor sin nor woe,
Nor God’s infliction, nor death’s neighborhood,
Nor all which others viewing, turn to go,
Nor all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed,—
Nothing repels thee, … Dearest, teach me so
To pour out gratitude, as thou dost, good!

As the speaker' heavy-burdened soul waited "for a place / / In the new Heavens," she now realizes the extent to which she has become aware of a new blossoming through the love of her belovèd. The speaker then begins a catalogue of negativity that has not been able to impede her belovèd from sensing the face of her real soul. That list includes "nor sin nor woe." Furthermore, "God’s infliction" and "death’s neighborhood" could not hide her soul from him. And even other impediments of her personality that repelled others could not make her belovèd abandon her.

Second Tercet: A Catalogue of Maladies

Nor all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed,—
Nothing repels thee, … Dearest, teach me so
To pour out gratitude, as thou dost, good!

Continuing the catalogue of maladies, the speaker includes "all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed." When she judged herself most harshly, she had found so many imperfections that the accumulation of them weakened her will to live a productive life. Yet even these worst qualities of character have not been able to route the speaker's new love from her, and her final remark shows the nature of her true soul.

The recovering melancholic speaker now commands her belovèd to "teach [her] so / To pour out gratitude." The speaker's miserable life has made her feel that she hitherto had nothing for which to be thankful, and now she needs to learn how to "pour out gratitude." The speaker finally asserts that her belovèd has the ability to pour out "good" with such a spontaneous ease that she wants to learn to do so as well. If her belovèd is so generous with being "good," then the speaker wants to become generous in being thankful.

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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