Sonnets from the Portuguese 28: My letters! all dead paper, ... mute and white !

My letters! all dead paper, ... mute and white ! —
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which loose the string
And let them drop down on my knee to-night.
This said, ... he wished to have me in his sight
Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand ... a simple thing,
Yet I wept for it! — this, ... the paper's light ...
Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed
As if God's future thundered on my past.
This said, I am thine — and so its ink has paled
With lying at my heart that beat too fast.
And this ... O Love, thy words have ill availed,
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!

Writing Ideas

  1. Try writing an update to Barrett Browning’s sonnet, putting her speaker in the context of a networked age. Describe a scene of reading (or viewing) personal communications—emails, texts, social media posts—without revealing the content of the communiqués. Pay attention to the physical and psychological responses generated by looking and reading; like Barrett Browning, play with deixis, punctuation, and citation to recreate sensations and bring readers to your scene.
  2. Barrett Browning animates what seems to be “dead paper,” suggesting that certain objects are “alive” because of the emotions they contain (from the beloved) and generate (in the lover). Choose an object that seems similarly affective—capable of creating or transmitting emotions—and describe the process by which it comes to life.
  3. This sonnet narrates the sequence of a love affair, from friendship to impassioned declarations of love. Try writing a sonnet that describes some other kind of progress or progression—examples might include the end of a love affair, a course of study, the life of someone or something.

Discussion Questions

  1. In his poem guide, Stephen Burt notes how Barrett Browning manages to “create the sense that we are there in her room” by yoking the conventions of dramatic monologue and theater to Renaissance conventions of love poetry; how does the sonnet negotiate between action and interior thought? Think about punctuation, apostrophe, and other formal features. You might identify other possible binaries the sonnet complicates and explore how it does so: for example, past and present, presence and absence, writing and speech.
  2. How does the apostrophe “O Love” work to blur the distinction between private love letter and public love poem? What kinds of reader expectations does Barrett Browning play with in the poem’s final phrase, “at last”? 

Teaching Tips

  1. Sonnet 28 is part of the most famous sonnet sequence in English. Gauge students’ prior knowledge of Barrett Browning’s sequence, and sonnet sequences as a whole. What kinds of subject matter do such sequences address? Who writes them and why? Based on this sonnet, what predictions can they make about Barrett Browning’s sequence? After discussion or pair work, have students read the first and last sonnets in Sonnets from the Portuguese. What story is Barrett Browning telling? How is she doing so? You might ask students to compare her sonnets to other famous sequences, George Meredith’s Modern Love, Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, or Petrarch’s. As a final assignment, ask students to write a glossary entry for “Sonnet sequence,” including examples they’ve discovered. (Use the Poetry Foundation glossary or a handbook like the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics to model this kind of definition.)
  2. As Stephen Burt notes in his poem guide, Barrett Browning’s sonnet draws on resources of the theater, including props and stage directions. Discuss this sonnet in the context of the Victorian vogue for dramatic monologue, generating discussion about the characteristics of the form by looking at other examples. How do students see the conventions of dramatic monologue and theater working together, or diverging, in other such monologues? Why might Barrett Browning have relied so heavily on theatrical conventions in this sonnet? Finally, have students put on miniature productions of this sonnet. You might encourage them to experiment with following Barrett Browning’s “script” exactly, and with taking a freer, more interpretive approach. Does their understanding of the sonnet or its language change as they embody its gestures? 
More Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning