Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 1

Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Sonnets from the Portuguese


Sonnet 1 in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese features a speaker who expresses the fruitlessness of dwelling on death and the melancholy such musing will create.

Sonnets from the Portuguese is the most famous work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That work consists of 44 sonnets, all in the Petrarchan or Italian form. The theme of the series focuses directly on the budding love relationship between Elizabeth and the man who would become her husband, Robert Browning. As the relationship continues to flower, Elizabeth became skeptical that it would last. Her insecurities are on display in this series of poems.

Petrarchan, also known as Italian, sonnets consist of an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. The octave is further made up of two quatrains (four lines), and the sestet can be further sectioned into tercets (three lines).

These sections are very helpful to the commentarian, whose job is to analyze in order to provide meaning. The specific form of all of Barrett Browning's 44 sonnets, nevertheless, consists of one actual stanza, which means that segmenting them is for critical purposes primarily.

First Quatrain: “I thought once how Theocritus had sung”

The speaker begins her dramatizing of her musing by imparting the fact that she has studied closely the bucolic poetry of the ancient classical poet, Theocritus. That classical Greek poet "had sung / Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years."

She has perceived the idea from the poem’s insightful knowledge that every year offers “a gift to mortals”; the elderly and the youthful alike are capable of receiving those marvelous and sacred blessings.

Her melancholy and loneliness have moved her to search out answers for questions that have plagued her, answers regarding the purpose of living. The speaker rightly and thankfully is consulting the ancient thinkers because she knows they have offered wisdom and courage to each succeeding generation.

Second Quatrain: “And, as I mused it in his antique tongue”

After continuing to muse on the words of Theocritus, the speaker well understands the sentiment expressed in these words, that will bring her eyes to tears. And through those sincere tears, she seems to see her "own life."

She knows that her own years have not been especially kind to her. Her own life has been filled with much sorrow. The gifts provided by time are not always welcome ones to the recipient. Such is life.

Each person’s karma is responsible for the specific happenings that occur in one’s life. One will always reap as one sows. But one does not have to be happy with the results, as one strives to change one’s karma through improving one’s behavior and thoughts.

Barrett Browning’s ability to understand the original Greek text is critical in her ability to feel the profound emotional impact of those thoughts. False "translators" such a Robert Bly, who could not read the texts he supposedly translated in the original, would likely add an absurd element rendering true emotion impossible, but Barrett Browning did understand the languages in which she read, and thus she could render a speaker with genuine emotion.

First Tercet: “A shadow across me. Straightway I was 'ware”

The speaker then asserts that her own life has been lived beneath a "shadow." This dark cloud has stretched "across [her]," and she, all of a sudden, becomes aware that she is crying. She senses that she is being dragged backward: someone or something is pulling her by the hair into some "mystic Shape." Unfortunately, she is not able to identify that strange creature who seems to be tugging at her.

Second Tercet: “And a voice said in mastery, while I strove”

As she attempts to right herself, the speaker then detects what seems to be a voice, a "voice of mastery," and it suggests a question to her; it says, "Guess now who holds thee?”

She immediately yet fatalistically responds, “Death.” However, to her relieved surprise, the voice corrects her deadly response with, “Not Death, but Love.”

A Final Remark

Barrett Browning’s sonnet begins with a marvelously fantastic open scope for discovery in the life of one who has a penchant for melancholy.

Imagine! Beginning with the somber thought that death is your only immediate consort and then gradually learning that, no, not death, but love is on your horizon. Love that the speaker is seeking. Love that we are all seeking!

Barrett Browning’s journey to accepting the love that Robert Browning offered will remain one the most passionate and inspirational love stories of all time.

Reading of Sonnet 1

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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Comments 12 comments

FatBoyThin profile image

FatBoyThin 13 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

Can't say I've come across this one before, and a side of EBB I wasn't aware of (I'm not very well read!) Interesting and informative analysis, Linda. Great Hub.

Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Maya Shedd Temple 13 months ago from Spring Hill, TN Author

Thank you, Colin. Stay tuned. I'll be adding a commentary on each of the 44 sonnets in EBB's Sonnets from the Portuguese. I appreciate the kind words! Have a blessed day, my friend.

limpet profile image

limpet 10 months ago from London England

I've seen a framed portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the Metropolitan at London's Baker Street station. This one in particular depicts an incredibly beautiful young woman and utterly beguiling as well. I'll get more information on this later.

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Maya Shedd Temple 10 months ago from Spring Hill, TN Author

Ian, I'd love to see that portrait. EBB always looks pleasant in her portraits, but I have never seen one that could be described as you have done. Hope you will post it soon.

limpet profile image

limpet 10 months ago from London England

As promised i will get back with more info after the next time i'm in the vicinity. They did reside in Wimpole Street in close by Marylebone. (pronounced Marleybone or Marill a bone, both are acceptable).

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Maya Shedd Temple 10 months ago from Spring Hill, TN Author

OK, I look forward to it.

limpet profile image

limpet 10 months ago from London England

In the meantime, i have discovered the particular pose on google images for Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is both a portrait and a sketch of said portrait. You'll know it by the shimmering tresses of her hair and the 'come on' look she's showing facially.

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Maya Shedd Temple 10 months ago from Spring Hill, TN Author

I'll have to see if I can find it. Sounds fascinating!

limpet profile image

limpet 10 months ago from London England

As promised, i have gone back to look at that picture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and it turns out to be a print of a sketch (unsigned) of a sitting portrait concentrating on the facial more than the pose. There is also a portrait there of Robert Browning who to me, comes across here in this picture as a dashing 'man about town'. A brief synopsis of their short and tragic lives is described as well as a mention of the Portuguese sonnet.

Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Maya Shedd Temple 10 months ago from Spring Hill, TN Author

Thank you, limpet! Is that print available anywhere online?

limpet profile image

limpet 10 months ago from London England

It is a copy of the very one on your hub page work Elizabeth Barratt Browning's sonnets 11. Here the illustrator has used 'license' to alter her lips giving her a 'come on' grimance' and the irises of her eyes are looking upwards. In any case very flattering of him ( ? ) to say the least. There is no detail in her garments and no fingers yet un gloved. Now i am wanting to be an enthusiast of the whole Barrett Browning story.

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Maya Shedd Temple 10 months ago from Spring Hill, TN Author

Thanks for info, limpet. Yes, they are a fascinating pair.

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    Linda Sue Grimes (Maya Shedd Temple)36 Followers
    476 Articles

    Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

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