Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 1
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Sonnets from the Portuguese
The complete 44 sonnet sequence. Free on Kindle.
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