Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 24
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
In “Sonnet 24,” from Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s strategy resembles the metaphysical poet’s use of the strange conceit as she compares the world’s harshness to a clasping knife.
John Donne often dramatized with this device in his poems of seduction. He employed the ghost metaphor in “The Apparition,” and he used blood in the poem, “The Flea.” Both abundantly odd choices for such a poem that seeks to woo.
First Quatrain: “Let the world's sharpness, like a clasping knife”
The speaker engages the conceit of a “clasping knife” to refer to the “world’s sharpness” that would intrude upon the love between herself and her belovèd.
Like the metaphysical poets who employed such devices, this poet follows their lead at times, engaging strange metaphors and similes to express her comparison.
But this speaker allows that the world should just close itself up like that “clasping knife” so that its threat will not interfere with the love she feels for her belovèd.
The speaker begs that no “harm” come to “this close hand of love.” After the knife closes to shut away the sharpness, then there is no danger. She asks for “soft and warm,” without the “sound of human strife.”
Sonnets from the Portuguese
This volume includes all 44 poems in the sonnet sequence.
Second Quatrain: “After the click of the shutting. Life to life”
The speaker continues the knife conceit into the second quatrain of the sonnet. After the sharpness and danger are put away, she and her belovèd will exist “without alarm,” and they will be safe.
They will be “guarded by a charm / Against the stab of worldlings.” The speaker finds obstacles everywhere.
After overcoming her own inner doubts, she now has to battle the unsympathetic barbs of others.
But by likening the ridicule to a “clasping knife,” the speaker dramatizes her method for overcoming the negativities of other people; she will merely close them off from her consciousness.
First Tercet: “Are weak to injure. Very whitely still”
The knife conceit has worked well because she is able to admit that the stabs of those worldlings are many yet they “are weak to injure.” She then takes up another conceit which likens the lovers’ relationship to “the lilies of our lives” that “reassure / Their blossoms from their roots.”
The roots of the flower are hidden, but they are strong and sustain the beauty of the blooms. The speaker is dramatizing the love between herself and her belovèd, averring that they possess a strong, hidden core like the flowers.
Second Tercet: “Alone to heavenly dews that drop not fewer”
And the source of their love is “accessible / Alone to heavenly dews.” Their love “grow[s] straight, out of man’s reach” and resembles flowers growing on a hill.
Their love comes from God, and “only God, who made us rich, can make us poor.”
The speaker is echoing the marriage vows as she has done before in Sonnet 22: “what God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6).
Reading of Sonnet 24
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes