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SonnetsFromThePortuguese

1916 Photographic Illustration for Sonnets from the Portuguese by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson.

Sonnets from the Portuguese is a sonnet sequence[1] by the Victorian English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. First published in 1850, the forty-four love sonnets in the sequence were written by Elizabeth Barrett between 1845 and 1846 during her courtship with the poet Robert Browning, her future husband. Considered to be the first true sonnet sequence in English since the Elizabethan period,[2] Sonnets from the Portuguese is also notable for being written from the point of view of a woman.[3]

Elizabeth Barrett was already an established poet in 1844 when a volume of her work Poems was published. Robert Browning, who was still a promising but struggling poet at the time, wrote to her expressing admiration for her work. They met in May 1845 and, following a passionate but (due to objections from her father) secret courtship, eloped to Italy in September 1846. The couple exchanged nearly six hundred letters[4] during the courtship, but the sonnets were a private record Elizabeth kept of her feelings and the progress of their relationship. When she finally shared them with Robert three years after their marriage, he declared the sonnets the best since Shakespeare's and encouraged her to publish them.

The sonnets chronicle the poet's emotional journey as she goes through a transformation from a middle-aged invalid resigned to her melancholy existence to a grateful and confident woman with a hopeful future. At first, she holds herself back in hesitation, feeling unworthy of her attractive young suitor (Robert was six years her junior and worldly whereas the frail Elizabeth spent her days confined to her rooms). As the romance grows, however, she comes to fully appreciate the depth of his feelings for her. The strength of the love eventually helps her overcome her insecurities and realize her own worth. In the end, she offers her love to him, not as a desperate admirer but as an equal partner in an enduring relationship.

Thomas B. Read (American, 1822-1872) - Portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Portraits of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.

The title of the collection refers to the pet name Robert Browning gave Elizabeth, "my little Portuguese" (he thought she looked Portuguese with her dark complexion) and also honors the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões whose sonnets Elizabeth admired. It is also believed that the couple deliberately selected the ambiguous title to disguise the poems as translations because of their autobiographical and intensely private nature.

Sonnets from the Portuguese is best known for its penultimate poem "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." which has appeared in many anthologies as a stand-alone sonnet.

Summary

The sonnet sequence is a monologue by a woman who finds herself unexpectedly in love. No longer young and having lived a lonely life, the narrator is at first overwhelmed by the differences she sees between the man she loves and herself - she is but "a poor, tired, wandering singer" while he has his "calling to some palace-floor." She believes she has nothing fit to offer him, and she is also afraid that she would only be a burden to him. But at the same time she feels herself being lifted by his love, and sees her soul being placed by him "on a golden throne." She compares her suitor to a noble king and herself to a vanquished soldier yielding his sword. She declares that if he invites her forth, she would “rise above abasement at the word.” Then she implores: “Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth!”

Then follows a period of excitement and passion. She speaks of giving away a lock of her hair for the first time in her life when she had "thought the funeral-shears would take this first." Having received a letter from him in which he tells her the sun would "more coldly shine" if he were to lose her, she says she would rather stay on earth with him than go to heaven. She feels that he has rescued her from despair when even "God's own grace could scarcely lift" her heavy heart. She takes out a bundle of his letters and re-lives the significant moments from their growing romance.

Soon, however, the narrator's insecurities return, and doubt casts a shadow over her happiness. She weeps at night, unsure if he really loves her or if she just imagines and dreams. She fears that the love that came so quickly may also fade quickly. Feeling unworthy again, she calls herself "an out-of-tune worn viol" which would spoil a good singer's song.

When she sees him again and sees the earnestness in his eyes, she realizes she did him injustice by doubting and thinking his love a counterfeit. She comes to understand that it is her own weakness which distorts her perceptions. He can look through her mask and see into her soul, and he continues to love her regardless of what he finds there. Secure in her knowledge that their love is true and enduring, the narrator finally leaves her painful past behind and looks to the future. Filled with gratitude, she counts the ways she loves him and pledges to love him even after death. She speaks of the many flowers her lover has brought her, and now offers in return the wild roses and ivy from her "heart's ground." No longer held back by her fears, she tells him to "take them, as I used to do / Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine. / Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true, / And tell thy soul, their roots are left in mine."

Footnotes

  1. A sonnet sequence (also called a sonnet cycle) is a series of sonnets written by a poet around a unifying theme. Although sonnets in a sequence can be read and enjoyed individually, taken together they form one longer work to tell a story or illustrate an idea.
  2. The English sonnet sequence was a popular literary form during the late 1500s and into the early 1600s before it fell out of favor. Famous examples of Elizabethan sonnet sequences include Astrophel and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney and the 154 sonnets written by Shakespeare.
  3. Traditionally, sonnets were written by male poets and portrayed women in an idealized light.
  4. The Brownings' letters were posthumously published by their son and helped immortalize their romance. The letters are often studied alongside the sonnets.

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