Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 15
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Sonnets from the Portuguese
This volume includes all 44 of the sonnets in the sequence titled Sonnets from the Portuguese
The speaker in Sonnet 15 concentrates on her ambiguous facial expressions that have yet to catch up with her overflowing heart.
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.
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.
Reading of Sonnet 15
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes