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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 7: "The face of all the world is changed, I think"

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 7

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet #7 from Sonnets from the Portuguese expresses the speaker’s astonishment and delight at her own transformation, as she extends her gratitude to her lover for her life transformation.

Sonnet 7

The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole
God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,
And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
The names of country, heaven, are changed awa
For where thou art or shalt be, there or here;
And this … this lute and song … loved yesterday,
(The singing angels know) are only dear
Because thy name moves right in what they say.

Reading of Sonnet 7

Commentary

Sonnet 7 offers a tribute to the speaker's lover, who has wrought deep and lasting important changes in the speaker's life.

First Quatrain: Changing Environment

The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink

The emotional speaker notes that all things in her environs have changed their appearance because of her new outlook after having become aware of her new love. Lovers traditionally begin to see the world through rose-colored glasses upon falling in love. Every ordinary object takes on a rosy glow that flows from the happiness in the heart of the romantic lover.

This deep-thinking speaker asserts that her lover has placed himself between her and the terrible "death" she has sensed to be engulfing her. His "footsteps" were so gentle that they seemed to be the soft sounds of only the soul.

Second Quatrain: Doomed Without Love

Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole
God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,

The speaker was convinced that without such a love to save her she was doomed to "obvious death." She finds herself suddenly transported to a new world, a new "life in a new rhythm" with the arrival of her beloved. She was so mired in sadness that it seemed that she was being "baptized" in that mindset, as one drowning in one’s own fears and tears.

The melancholy speaker finds herself reluctant to allow herself complete immersion in her newfound happiness, but still she has to admit that her new status is overcoming her prior terror.

First Tercet: A Universal Change

And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
The names of country, heaven, are changed away
For where thou art or shalt be, there or here;

The speaker must extol the "sweetness" that she receives from her new lover. Because he is beside her, she has changed in a universal way—"names of country, heaven, are changed away." Nothing is the same; all of her old cheerless, dreary life is transformed utterly.

The more confident speaker is now willing to entertain the notion that he will remain by her side to delight her life permanently, throughout time and space.

Second Tercet: The Singing of Angels

And this … this lute and song … loved yesterday,
(The singing angels know) are only dear
Because thy name moves right in what they say.

The glad speaker hears the angels sing in her lover’s voice, and as she loved his poems and music before, she has become even more enamored with them after a brief period of time has passed. His very name "moves right in what they say." As the angels sing and heavenly music delight her, she realizes that her beloved has brought about her pleasant state of mind.

The thankful speaker wants to give him all the tribute he deserves. She feels that she cannot exaggerate his magnitude, and everything she knows and feels now fills her heart and mind with new life—a life that she had become convinced she could never experience. With such a transformation, she feels that she cannot say enough to express the value of such an act.

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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