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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 40: "Oh, yes! they love through all this world of ours!"

Updated on March 28, 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 40

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 40” from Sonnets from the Portuguese, the speaker has discovered that her belovèd offers her the love that she finds most satisfying.

This special love demonstrates that it is unlike so many love behaviors and attitudes that have prevailed over the centuries all over the world. Thus, the speaker is musing on love as a general, universal phenomenon. She then emphasizes her appreciation for the patient love of her suitor.

Sonnet 40

Oh, yes! they love through all this world of ours!
I will not gainsay love, called love forsooth.
I have heard love talked in my early youth,
And since, not so long back but that the flowers
Then gathered, smell still. Mussulmans and Giaours
Throw kerchiefs at a smile, and have no ruth
For any weeping. Polypheme’s white tooth
Slips on the nut if, after frequent showers,
The shell is over-smooth,—and not so much
Will turn the thing called love, aside to hate,
Or else to oblivion. But thou art not such
A lover, my Belovèd! thou canst wait
Through sorrow and sickness, to bring souls to touch,
And think it soon when others cry “Too late.”

Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 40

Commentary

The speaker is musing on love as a universal phenomenon and stresses her appreciation for the patient love of her belovèd.

First Quatrain: An Excited Outburst

Oh, yes! they love through all this world of ours!
I will not gainsay love, called love forsooth.
I have heard love talked in my early youth,
And since, not so long back but that the flowers

The speaker begins with an outburst, "Oh, yes!" She then reports that people love all over the world. The musing speaker then claims that she will not speak ill of the concept of love, especially when the term is used correctly to mean love and not merely lust or sex.

The speaker then states that she remembers hearing people talk about love when she still a young girl, and even recently, she has also heard the word bandied about along with the gifts of flowers. Yet, this speaker is painfully aware that at times that professed love has lasted only as long as the scent of the flowers.

Second Quatrain: Different Ideologies on Love

Then gathered, smell still. Mussulmans and Giaours
Throw kerchiefs at a smile, and have no ruth
For any weeping. Polypheme’s white tooth
Slips on the nut if, after frequent showers

Differing ideologies perceive love through varying lenses from the devout exemplified by the "Mussulmans" to the "Giaours" or infidels. Each group has its own way of professing and conducting its behavior based on their respective beliefs.

Fanatics will continue in their fanaticism regardless of the evidence. Once smitten by love some folks will not let go of the object it deems worth its attention. From classical mythology, the character Polypheme, who was obsessed with Galatea, offers an additional example of the varieties of behaviors motivated by love.

First Tercet: Drawing a Contrast

The shell is over-smooth,—and not so much
Will turn the thing called love, aside to hate,
Or else to oblivion. But thou art not such

Nothing can turn these various lovers from their own folly. The speaker is especially interested in drawing a complete contrast between her lover and those others, whose obsessive and compulsive behaviors are never welcome in the name of love. By comparing and contrasting the varied love stories through history, the speaker can demonstrate the quiet, gentle nature of her own belovèd.

Second Tercet: Dramatizing a Favored Quality

A lover, my Belovèd! thou canst wait
Through sorrow and sickness, to bring souls to touch,
And think it soon when others cry "Too late."

In the final analysis, the speaker dramatizes the best quality of her own belovèd. This confident speaker can now assert that, " . . . thou art not such // A lover, my Belovèd!" He is not one of those who dwell on superficial qualities. This speaker's suitor practices patience; thus, he can "wait / Through sorrow and sickness." More importantly, this speaker's belovèd suitor is capable of looking to the soul to forge his adventure in love, "to bring souls to touch."

The speaker always reveals that she is more interested in the soul level of love than in the physical and mental. This deep-thinking and creative speaker has realized that her belovèd’s thinking is so different from those who seek the petty over the profound. This speaker is pleased to stress that he "think[s] it soon when other cry, "Too late." Finding the right soul mate seems soon when one is focusing on the genuine instead of the counterfeit. The speaker is happy to celebrate her belovèd’s proper focus.

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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