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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 17

Updated on October 24, 2016
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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


Introduction: Love's Poetics

Barrett Browning's speaker always retains a hint of melancholy and doubt as she journeys through her sequence of love songs to her beloved.

The speaker's charm remains subtle while always tinged with the possibility of sorrow. Even as that former sadness in which she dwelt so heavily subsides, its specter seems forever to simmer just below the surface of consciousness.

Sonnets from the Portuguese

Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Poems (Dover Thrift Editions)
Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Poems (Dover Thrift Editions)

The volume includes all 44 of the sonnet sequence.


First Quatrain: “My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes”

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 17” from Sonnets from the Portuguese addresses her belovèd, asserting that he “can[ ] touch on all the notes / God set between His After and Before.”

The speaker's high praise for her lover’s poetic prowess demonstrates a shift in her observation from her own lowly station to his art.

Because the speaker herself is a poet, she has, no doubt, known that she must eventually address the issue that both she and her belovèd share the same avocation.

It might well be expected that she will elevate his while remaining humble about her own, and that expectation is fulfilled in this poetic offering.

Second Quatrain: “In a serene air purely. Antidotes”

The melody “floats / In a serene air purely.” Mankind will find his dramatization “medicated music,” which will cure the boredom of “mankind’s forlornest uses.” Her lover has the unique ability to spill his melodic strains “into their ears.”

First Tercet: “Thine to such ends, and mine to wait on thine”

The speaker asserts that her greatly talented lover’s drama is, indeed, sanctioned by the Divine, and she is motivated as she patiently expects his creations to flaunt their magic and music to her as well.

The speaker puts a complicated question to her belovèd: “How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?”

In that the speaker would perfectly fulfill her position as muse, she makes clear that she will be right alongside him in his every effort to sustain his God-given abilities.

Regardless of the theme or subject, whether it be, “a hope, to sing by gladly,” the speaker suggests that she will continue to praise where necessity takes her.

Second Tercet: “Sad memory, with thy songs to interfuse?”

This speaker, of course, will not relinquish her references to melancholy; thus her question continues with a set of propositions: perhaps she will offer “a fine / Sad memory.” She will, of course, not be surprised that her powers of sorrow may be useful to them both in their poetic pursuits.

But the speaker also wonders if death themes might intrude at some point: “A shade, in which to sing—of palm or pine? / A grave, on which to rest from singing?”

It just may be that they will both become so satisfied with their comfortable love that they will have to rely more on imagination than they had ever thought.

Thus the speaker admonishes her poetically talented belovèd that at some point they will be offered many choices, and they will at that time have to “choose.”

Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 17

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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