Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Sonnets from the Portuguese 28”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s exciting and excited sonnet takes part in the centuries-old tradition of amorous sonnets and sonnet sequences (as old as the sonnet form, as Dante and Petrarch), but also draws on the new Victorian kind of poem called the dramatic monologue, which her husband Robert Browning helped to invent. In dramatic monologue a single character’s speech, depicted in real time, reveals by irony or indirection that character’s inmost thoughts, and makes him or her seem present, as if on stage. In dramatic monologue, however, the speaker is never the poet herself. Here, we must identify the vivid, distractable lover who speaks as Elizabeth Barrett Browning—indeed, we can set the poem beside what we know of her life.
That life involves one of the great love stories in literary history. Well-known as a poet by the early 1840s, Elizabeth Barrett lived as an invalid in the London house of her strict father, who supported her writing but did not want her, nor her siblings, ever to marry. Robert Browning, five years younger and much less successful, admired her poetry, as she admired his. They exchanged letters, he paid her weekly visits, and their literary friendship soon became something stronger: “I love your verse with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” he wrote in January 1845, “and I love you too.” Despite her illness, the pair made plans to elope and live in Italy: in September 1846 those plans were fulfilled. (The Brownings would live there together until her death in 1861; they had one son.)
Over the twenty months of their clandestine courtship, Elizabeth and Robert wrote each other almost six hundred letters, most of which were published after her death. In those same months, Elizabeth also began a series of sonnets about their courtship, shown to Robert only after their elopement, and published in 1850 under the title Sonnets from the Portuguese. The Portuguese poet Luís de Camoëns was famous for his love sonnets; Barret Browning’s title referred, as well, to her earlier poem “Caterina to Camoens,” one of Robert’s favorites. The title also followed the pretense—albeit a flimsy one—that the sonnets were merely translations, with no basis in the poets’ lives. Parts of the sequence, if not the whole, remain popular today, especially the penultimate sonnet, which begins, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
We chose Sonnet 28 in part for its distance from that one. “How do I love thee?” seems to take place outside space and time; it takes the Brownings’ love as already mutual, already confirmed, and perhaps already eternal, concluding, “if God choose,/I shall but love thee better after death.” Sonnet 28, by contrast, takes place on earth, at a particular time in the midst of their courtship, and in a particular space. Elizabeth presents herself alone and indoors, overcome with joy at the written evidence (still new, or as good as new) that her beloved hopes for their union too. Having bound Robert’s letters together with string (to hide them, or to keep them in chronological order) she unbinds and rereads them as if to stave off disbelief: his love still seems too good to be true.
Like other Victorian poets—and as skillfully as any—Barrett Browning puts to lyric, expressive purpose the devices of the realist novel and of the theater, with “stage directions” (she picks up the letters, she drops them) and “props.” On those devices the dramatic monologue depends. We seem not only to hear, but to see, the character who speaks these lines, almost as that character (i.e., Elizabeth) comes to envision Robert before her: the lines end in outbursts, impassioned and impromptu. Midline interruptions, repeated demonstratives (“This . . . This . . . And this”), and asides (“the paper’s light”) help to create the sense that we are there in her room.
Barrett Browning also musters bodily senses—sight, touch, hearing, temperature, kinesthesia, even pulse rate—to make the scene as vivid as she can. The sonnet begins with touch—her hands keep trembling, adjusting themselves to the papers’ slight weight. We then find the word “sight,” the memory of the first time she saw him in person, and then again “touch” and “hand.” The turn after line 8, introducing a new set of rhymes, introduces the sense of sound as well: Barrett Browning remembers a heartbeat that felt like “thunder,” then a “heart that beat too fast.” She introduces, finally, her entire body (not just the octave’s “hand” and “knee”): Robert’s epistolary declarations have affected her whole frame (“I sank and quailed”).
Sonnets from the Portuguese seems to have been the first English sonnet sequence since Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti (1595) whose courtship concluded in marital union. As the scholar Natasha Distiller writes, Barrett Browning depicts herself “coming to terms with having love, not . . . with wanting love.” She finds those terms, but not without inner turmoil, not without self-doubt, not without surprise. The paper letters Barrett Browning rereads in this sonnet become evidence, shocking evidence, of love returned—not only words to that effect but also physical evidence, objects, tokens: the words, and the physical letters, grow more and more “alive” in the course of the sonnet, as the poet remembers how it felt to read them. The letter that said “I am thine” has grown almost faint because she has been clutching it to her chest, or secretly wearing it, as lovers wear tokens and lockets: she has kept it as close to her heart as she could.
Barrett Browning’s sonnet takes pains to distinguish itself, and love poetry generally, from the love letters, the personal letters, described and reread by the character within the poem. We do not read, in Elizabeth’s sonnet, the words that came to her in the letters that Robert wrote. Instead, for most of the sonnet, we read their paraphrase, and we see how his words worked on her. Then, in her last exclamation, as she turns to him—just when the love letters seem most animated, most committed to their future union—even paraphrase disappears. Barrett Browning shows just how intimate, and how important, the correspondence between the two poets felt by telling us that she cannot reveal what it said.
By withholding whatever that last letter meant—and by addressing Robert as she does so (“O Love”)—Barrett Browning makes a brilliant joke, a partly flirtatious ending to a nonetheless serious sonnet: she declares herself unable to finish the poem while making that declaration itself an emphatic conclusion. This sonnet so attentive to the body’s various senses, and to sound (the sounds of speech, the “thunder” of a quickened pulse), falls suddenly silent. This love poem about love letters thus speaks to the gulf between the two forms—the latter private, literal, meant for one reader alone; the former, because it is poetry, “departicularized” (to use the poet Allen Grossman’s term), drawing on knowable conventions, able to move people the author will never meet. Anything meant for a lover’s eyes alone may remain in a love letter, but has to be subtracted from love poems, as Barrett Browning subtracts the last memory here.
Sonnet sequences from Petrarch forward have portrayed the progress, or regress, or romantic love; they have also depicted human interiority, finding and displaying the language of the inmost self. In sequences that describe unrequited love—such as Petrarch’s, or Sir Philip Sidney’s—there need be no contradiction between these two goals. The poet sets down on paper, for himself and later for others, the record of what he feels, how he feels, alone.
In a successful courtship, on the other hand, the two goals sooner or later collide: if my heart belongs to you and you alone, it cannot wholly belong on the printed or circulated page. William Empson thus decided that “the better the marriage, the less you can write about it”: the already-married couple are “presumed to be combined against the world.” Barrett Browning describes not a marriage, but a successful courtship, and she does so here by showing, first, its moments of excitement, and then its disappearance from view. As they find, embrace, and fulfill promises to each other, the paired lovers finally move away from the conventions and from the literary traditions that make romantic love, and the poems that describe it, intelligible to an audience beyond the lovers themselves. In doing so, she brings together Victorian and Renaissance conventions, the sonnet sequence with its hearts revealed and the dramatic monologue with its sets, its props, its demonstratives, its aural immediacy. She shows how these lovers came to know each other through the written word, and how their words became at last too intimate for further exposure—even in paraphrase, and even in poems.
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...