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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 8: "What can I give thee back, O liberal"

Updated on March 27, 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 8

Sonnet 8 from Sonnets from the Portuguese finds the speaker continuing to doubt and deny her great luck in attracting such an accomplished and generous suitor. However, she is slowly beginning to accept the possibility that this amazing man could have affection for her.

Sonnet 8

What can I give thee back, O liberal
And princely giver, who hast brought the gold
And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold,
And laid them on the outside of the wall
For such as I to take or leave withal,
In unexpected largesse? am I cold,
Ungrateful, that for these most manifold
High gifts, I render nothing back at all?
Not so; not cold,—but very poor instead.
Ask God who knows. For frequent tears have run
The colors from my life, and left so dead
And pale a stuff, it were not fitly done
To give the same as pillow to thy head.
Go farther! let it serve to trample on.

Reading of Sonnet 8 by Katherine Cornell

Commentary

The speaker continues to deny her good fortune as she reveals her gratitude for the attention of her illustrious suitor; she begins to accept her lot but reluctantly.

First Quatrain: Baffled by Attention

What can I give thee back, O liberal
And princely giver, who hast brought the gold
And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold,
And laid them on the outside of the wall

The speaker once again finds herself baffled by the attention she receives from one who is so much above her station in life. He has given her so much, being a "liberal / And princely giver." The term "liberal" here means openly generous.

Her suitor has brought his valuable poetry to her along with his own upper-class qualities and manners. She metaphorically assigns all of those gifts to the status of "gold and purple," the colors of royalty, and locates them "outside the wall."

The suitor romances her by serenading her under her window, and she is astonished by the good fortune she is experiencing. She cannot comprehend how one so delicate and lowly positioned as herself can merit the attention she continues to garner from this handsome, accomplished poet.

Second Quatrain: Rejecting or Accepting

For such as I to take or leave withal,
In unexpected largesse? am I cold,
Ungrateful, that for these most manifold
High gifts, I render nothing back at all?

The handsome suitor provides the speaker with the choice of taking his affections and attentions or rejecting them, and she is very grateful for all she receives even as she regrets that she has nothing to offer in return: "I render nothing back at all." She frames her lack into a question that answers itself, implying that even though she may seem "ungrateful," nothing could be further from the truth.

The rhetorical intensity achieved through dramatizing her feelings in a rhetorical question enhances not only the sonnet's artistry but also adds dimension to those same feelings. The rhetorical question device magnifies the emotion. Instead of employing overused expressions along the lines of "definitely" or "very," the speaker uses the rhetorical question to fuse the poetic tools into a dramatic expression that fairly explodes with emotion.

First Tercet: No Lack of Passion

Not so; not cold,—but very poor instead.
Ask God who knows. For frequent tears have run
The colors from my life, and left so dead

The speaker, however, does not leave the question open to possible misinterpretation; she then quite starkly answers, "No so; not cold." She does not lack passion about the gifts her suitor bestows upon her; she is merely "very poor instead."

She insists that it is "God who knows" the extent of her poverty as well as the depth of her gratitude. She then admits that through much shedding of tears, she has caused the details of her life to fade as clothing rinsed many times in water would become "pale a stuff."

Second Tercet: Low Self Esteem

And pale a stuff, it were not fitly done
To give the same as pillow to thy head.
Go farther! let it serve to trample on.

The speaker’s lack of a colorful life, her lowly station, her simplicity of expression have all combined to make her denigrate herself before the higher class suitor with whom she feels compelled to contrast herself.

She is still not able to reconcile her lack to his plenty, and again she wants to urge him to go from her because she feels her lack is worth so little that it might "serve to trample on." Her hopes and dreams she will keep hidden until they can override the reality of her personal lack of experience and life station.

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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