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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 15

Updated on October 6, 2017
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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.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 15, "Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 15” from Sonnets from the Portuguese finds the speaker again on the edge of doubt. She has lived with a gloomy countenance for so long that she is reluctant to change it to one of sunshine and gaiety, even as her belovèd apparently chides her for the melancholy.

Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear

Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear
Too calm and sad a face in front of thine;
For we two look two ways, and cannot shine
With the same sunlight on our brow and hair.
On me thou lookest with no doubting care,
As on a bee shut in a crystalline;
Since sorrow hath shut me safe in love's divine,
And to spread wing and fly in the outer air
Were most impossible failure, if I strove
To fail so. But I look on thee—on thee—
Beholding, besides love, the end of love,
Hearing oblivion beyond memory;
As one who sits and gazes from above,
Over the rivers to the bitter sea.

Reading of Sonnet 15

Commentary

First Quatrain: “Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear”

Addressing her belovèd, the speaker begs him not to worry over her solemn expression. She has experienced great difficulty accepting this love relationship, in part because of her penchant for melancholy. She has suffered physically and mentally for so long that it has become a part of her character and continues to disfigure her face.

She laments that she cannot change her facial expression so quickly, even with the shining example of her brilliant lover before her. She dramatically asserts that because the two of them each “look two ways,” they “cannot shine / With the same sunlight” on their faces.

Second Quatrain: “On me thou lookest with no doubting care”

She avers that he is able to look at her with great excitement and fervor without doubt or perturbation, because he is as content as if he were observing “a bee in a crystalline.” But for her, the experience is still in a transformative state.

She has been engulfed in “sorrow” for such an extended period of time that she feels she is still “shut [ ] safe in love’s divine.” Thus, still somewhat paralyzed by the full prospect of love, her unexercised limbs are still incapable of functioning well.

First Tercet: “Were most impossible failure, if I strove”

She invokes the metaphor of a bird flying or perhaps a bee that would “spread wing and fly,” but she claims that if she tried to “fly,” she would crash in failure. Such a failure would be so odious that she calls it a “most impossible failure.” And she insists that she does not dare “fail so.” When she looks at her belovèd, she sees such pure love that she thinks she sees through eternity to the “end of love”—not the stoppage of love but the goal of love, or the result that keeps her somewhat cautious.

Second Tercet: “Hearing oblivion beyond memory”

She senses in her lover’s look a perfection of love that allows her not only to see but hear “oblivion beyond memory.” She seems to be transported to a height from which she can observe the phenomena below. She can see “the rivers [flowing] to the bitter sea.” The sea remains “bitter” for now, but with all those rivers feeding it, she senses that one day she will look on it with kinder, more confident eyes.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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