Analysis of Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote this wildly popular sonnet sequence, most famous for its penultimate sonnet— “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” (sonnet 43)—during Robert Browning’s courtship of her in 1845 and 1846. She only showed him the poems in 1849, three years after their marriage and elopement, and published them, at his insistence, in her 1850 collection of Poems. The title is often mistaken as suggesting that the poems are translations of some Portuguese collection of sonnets (like their friend Edward FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar khayyám, from the Persian). Although the title is intentionally misleading, the mistake it fosters has an element of truth in it. Robert loved Elizabeth’s 1844 poem “Catarina to Camoens,” which is a fictional farewell, spoken when she is dying, by the real lady Catherina de Athaide to the great Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoens (1524–80), who had made her the lady of some of his love poems. Their relationship was broken up, and she died in 1556. Robert’s admiration for the poem made Elizabeth frame herself as Catarina (who also sang), filled with admiration and love for the Camoens of her day, Robert. She would therefore be the Portuguese, the woman writing these sonnets for the poet she loved and admired, and who loved and admired her in turn. (As in her poem, in which she follows a story whereby Catarina gives a ribbon from her hair to Camoens, Elizabeth describes giving a lock of her own hair to Robert in sonnet 18.) The obscurity of the title helps to maintain some deniability that the sonnets describe her relationship to Robert, but that is just what they do describe.

The sonnets are striking, then, as a kind of poetic autobiography of Elizabeth’s feeling for Robert in his insistent and passionate courtship. She had been an invalid for years, and unexpectedly she had found passionate love. What is striking about the sonnets is the difference in attitude they take from most sonnet sequences. The standard sequence, from the 14th-century poet Petrarch in Italian and from the 16th-century poets Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Philip Sidney in ­English (and William Shakespeare preeminently) is one of complaint that the beloved does nor reciprocate the sonneteer’s love. This is often couched in terms of a kind of astonishment: Given how much I love you, why don’t you love me back? But Sonnets from the Portuguese displays an opposite attitude: astonishment that someone like Robert Browning does love her. They register the surprise—the constantly defeated skepticism—that he should love her, and that she should be able to count on his love.

The sonnets also tell, but more incidentally, of the domestic happiness Elizabeth had to give up in order to elope with Robert. She had love at home, and her evocations of this love are moving, particularly her comfort in “Home-talk and blessing and the common kiss / That comes to each in turn” (sonnet 35, ll. 3–4). Of course, her home life was not what it had been two decades earlier: Her mother died when Elizabeth was 22, definitively ending the pleasures of childhood that had pretty much ceased for her at 14 when she was struck by the debilitating illness that would make her an invalid before Robert met her.

But meet her he did, and he struck her as both a great poet and abundant recompense for all that her elopement with him made her give up. Sonnets 33 and 34 provide a particularly striking account of this unlooked-for happiness after she had lost an older contentment in the world. He calls her by the same pet name she “used to run at, when a child” (33, l. 2) to take joy in the company of whatever beloved person called her—primarily her mother. Now those beloved persons are dead (33, l. 7). When he calls her, she first imagines that she has resuscitated a way of feeling love that she lost in early childhood. If he calls her by the same name, she will answer “With the same heart” (33, l. 14). But in the next sonnet, she sees that this is not so. When she was young, she left play to see someone she loved, and both activities were pleasurable and life-enhancing. Now, when she is called (by him), she is interrupted in the grave thoughts that the death of all those other loved ones have evoked in her. But the result of this is that he is not, like his earlier avatars, one loved thing among others but everything to her, not “a single good, but all my good” (34, l. 12). Her love of him is the concentration and essence of all love she has felt before.

The Shakespearean background to these sonnets is not to be found in Shakespeare’s sonnets but in Antony and Cleopatra, which Elizabeth echoes in her sonnet 26. Robert is unimaginably more wonderful than she could ever have fantasized, which is just what Cleopatra tells Dolabella about Antony. She is wonderstruck by the love she could never have hoped for: “God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame” (l. 14).

The most famous of these sonnets, as has been noted, is the penultimate one, number 43. Throughout the sequence, Elizabeth recognizes, with some uneasiness, that she loves Robert more than she loves God. This is the burden of the second sonnet already, where she declares that their love is stronger than any contrary obstacle God might erect to it, even death. The somewhat excessive claim of that second sonnet is beautifully tempered in the second to last. She loves him as far as her “soul can reach, when feeling out of sight / For the ends of Being and ideal Grace” (ll. 2–3). Her love is a human love, and she loves him when she is fully human, not when her soul seems on the verge of transcending the human. It is the humanity of this love that is so moving here and at the end allows her the prayer to God, or at least the hope that he will allow their love to survive even their deaths.

One of the technical achievements of Sonnets from the Portuguese is its use of enjambment. Browning writes sentences far longer than most sonnets tolerate. Her rhymes come in the middle of sentences that go on and on. The effect is one of great urbanity chastened by the sadness and love that she has been brought to feel. (It should be noted how different her tonality is from Robert’s.) We could call the style one of chastened enjambment and recognize in it a formal counterpart to her hope that even death will be an enjambment in the progress of their love, and not an end-stop. Certainly it is the sense of conversation, of saying what needs to be said, unhurriedly and seriously, that the enjambment helps us to feel, and to feel as well the depth of their love for each other and the hopes that they have for its endurance.

Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Bloom, Harold. A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Bristow, Joseph, ed. Victorian Women Poets: Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti. Houndsville, Basingstoke, England: Macmillan Press, 1995.
DeVane, William C. A Browning Handbook. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955. Donaldson, Sandra, ed. Critical Essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999.
Mason, Emma. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. Tavistock, Devon, England: Northcote House Publishers, 2006.

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