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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 42: "'My future will not copy fair my past'"

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 42

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 42" from Sonnets from the Portuguese finds the speaker reading an old piece of writing that shows her state of mind back before she had met her belovèd fiancé. The speaker's words reveal that she had been extremely hopeless regarding her future. Her angelic muse was even admonishing her with stern agreement.

The speaker’s journey through life, of course, has since taken an auspicious turn. The fortunate speaker now has spent much time musing over her good fortune. In the preceding 41 sonnets, she has repeatedly demonstrated her wavering and wondering if she even deserves the love that seems to come so easily to her from such a wonderful, accomplished man. She has often been found musing and reflecting over her new situation. In sonnet 42, she has come up on some old pieces that she earlier had written. Thus, she begins to compare and contrast her thoughts from yesteryear to her present state of mind.

Sonnet 42

"My future will not copy fair my past"—
I wrote that once; and thinking at my side
My ministering life-angel justified
The word by his appealing look upcast
To the white throne of God, I turned at last,
And there, instead, saw thee, not unallied
To angels in thy soul! Then I, long tried
By natural ills, received the comfort fast,
While budding, at thy sight, my pilgrim’s staff
Gave out green leaves with morning dews impearled.
I seek no copy now of life’s first half:
Leave here the pages with long musing curled,
And write me new my future’s epigraph,
New angel mine, unhoped for in the world!

Reading of Sonnet 42

Commentary

The speaker is musing and reflecting over some old pieces of writing; she is comparing her thoughts of the past to her present state of mind.

First Quatrain: Then and Now

"My future will not copy fair my past"—
I wrote that once; and thinking at my side
My ministering life-angel justified
The word by his appealing look upcast

The speaker is musing over a copy of some notes or pieces of memoir that she had written sometime in her past long before she met her belovèd. At the time she wrote this line, "My future will not copy fair my past," she believed it was true because her muse which she calls her "ministering life-angel" approved the words by glancing upward. This glance seemed to be a signal that the thought came directly from God.

Second Quatrain: Looking to God

To the white throne of God, I turned at last,
And there, instead, saw thee, not unallied
To angels in thy soul! Then I, long tried
By natural ills, received the comfort fast,

Later, the speaker looked directly to God herself, instead of through her muse/angel. She then saw her belovèd who was clearly bound to "angels in [his] soul." The speaker's long journey from suffering and pain had finally led her to a veritable fountain of healing.

The comforting balm of the speaker's belovèd quickly revived her spirit, though it took her mind much contemplation and even agitation to understand and finally accept what she had been given by him.

First Tercet: Beginning to Live

While budding, at thy sight, my pilgrim’s staff
Gave out green leaves with morning dews impearled.
I seek no copy now of life’s first half:

During the journey, the speaker's "pilgrim’s staff / Gave out green leaves with morning dews impearled." A youthful freshness revived the speaker's thinking and inspired her so fully that she finally felt she was beginning to live.

After at last realizing the beauty and majesty of this man’s feelings for her, the speaker now understands that the second half of her life will be very different from the first half, and she is very grateful for this fortunate change in her situation. Because of her good fortune, the speaker "seek[s] no copy now of life’s first half." The pain of the past has been erased, and the future portends brightness and happiness.

Second Tercet: The Courage to Hope

Leave here the pages with long musing curled,
And write me new my future’s epigraph,
New angel mine, unhoped for in the world!

Regarding the "pages with long musing," the speaker wishes to allow them to yellow and age and remain unremarkable. She can "write [herself] new [her] future’s epigraph." The speaker credits her belovèd whom she calls, "New angel mine," with her transformation, as she admits that she had not even had the courage to hope for such a love "in the world."

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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