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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 4: "Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor"

Updated on March 26, 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 4

The speaker seems to be searching for a reason to believe that such a match with a suitor as illustrious as hers is even possible. She continues to brood in a melancholy line of thought, even as she seems to be becoming enthralled with the notion of having a true love in her life.

Sonnet 4

Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor,
Most gracious singer of high poems! where
The dancers will break footing, from the care
Of watching up thy pregnant lips for more.
And dost thou lift this house’s latch too poor
For hand of thine? and canst thou think and bear
To let thy music drop here unaware
In folds of golden fulness at my door?
Look up and see the casement broken in,
The bats and owlets builders in the roof!
My cricket chirps against thy mandolin.
Hush, call no echo up in further proof
Of desolation! there’s a voice within
That weeps … as thou must sing … alone, aloof.

Reading of Sonnet 4

Commentary

Sonnet 4 marches on with the speaker's musing on her new relationship with her suitor, who seems too good to be true.

First Quatrain: "Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor"

Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor,
Most gracious singer of high poems! where
The dancers will break footing, from the care
Of watching up thy pregnant lips for more.

In Sonnet 4 from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker addresses directly her suitor, as she continues her metaphorical comparison between the two lovers in a similar vain as she did with Sonnet 3.

Once again, she takes note of her suitor’s invitations to perform for royalty, "Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor." He has been a "[m]ost gracious singer of high poems," and the royal guests curiously stop dancing to listen to him recite his poetry.

The speaker visualizes the dashing Robert Browning at court, mesmerizing the king, queen, and royal guest with the poetic prowess.

Second Quatrain: "And dost thou lift this house's latch too poor"

And dost thou lift this house’s latch too poor
For hand of thine? and canst thou think and bear
To let thy music drop here unaware
In folds of golden fulness at my door?

In the second quatrain, the speaker puts forth a rhetorical question in two-parts: 1) Being one of such high breeding and accomplishment, are you sure that you want to visit one who is lower class than you? 2) Are you sure that you do not mind reciting your substantial and rich poetry in such a low class place with one who is not of your high station?

First Tercet "Look up and see the casement broken in"

Look up and see the casement broken in,
The bats and owlets builders in the roof!
My cricket chirps against thy mandolin.

The speaker then insists that her royalty-worthy suitor to take a good look at where she lives. The windows of her house are in disrepair, and she cannot afford to have "the bats and owlets" removed from the nests that they have built in the roof of her house.

The final line of the first sestet offers a marvelous comparison that metaphorically states the difference between the suitor and speaker: "My cricket chirps against thy mandolin." On the literal level, she is only a plain woman living in a pastoral setting with simple possessions, while he is the opposite, cosmopolitan and richly endowed, famous enough to be summoned by royalty, possessing the expensive musical instrument with which he can embellish his already distinguished art.

The lowly speaker's "crickets" also metaphorically represent her own poems, which she likens to herself, poor creatures compared to the "high poems" and royal music of her illustrious suitor. The suitor’s "mandolin," therefore, literally exemplifies wealth and leisure because it accompanies his poetry performance, and it figuratively serves as a counterpart to the lowly crickets of the speaker.

Second Tercet: "Hush, call no echo up in further proof"

Hush, call no echo up in further proof
Of desolation! there’s a voice within
That weeps … as thou must sing … alone, aloof.

The speaker again makes a gentle demand of her suitor, begging him, please do not be concerned or troubled for my rumblings about poverty and my lowly station. The speaker is asserting her belief that it is simply her natural mode of expression; her "voice within" is one that is given to melancholy, even as his voice is given to singing cheerfully.

The speaker implies that because she has lived "alone, aloof," it is only natural that her voice would reveal her loneliness and thus contrast herself somewhat negatively with one as illustrious as her suitor.

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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