Sonnets from the Portuguese, by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning

01 July 2024 by Jian Zhi Qiu

Quote from Dear Su Yen pp. 54-57

Dear Su Yen

You said you had heard about a special sort of poem called a sonnet, and you wondered whether He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven was a sonnet. Well it isn't, but it is a bit like one, as you will see.

In the nineteenth century a lady called Elizabeth Barrett lived with her parents in a gloomy house in London. She was no longer young, and often she was ill. She wrote poetry and read poetry and she particularly liked the poems of a man called Robert Browning. The two wrote to each other and exchanged poems. At last Elizabeth persuaded her parents to let Robert come to visit her. They fell in love straight away; perhaps they had already fallen in love through their letters and poems. They married and went to live in sunny Italy, near Rome; Elizabeth's health improved and, as far as we know, they lived happily ever after and continued to write poetry. It is one of the great love-stories of English life.

Elizabeth wrote a number of sonnets about her feelings for her husband: these are some of the best-loved poems in English culture. This one is about the great change in her life when she met Robert. The first part describes her “melancholy” life. Women in well-off families at that time were not supposed to work and they were not allowed in universities, and if they did not marry they often had a restricted and boring life, although married life often was restricted and boring too; some did write books or poetry. It seemed Elizabeth's life would continue like that until her death which might be soon because of her ill health. Then, in an instant, her future changed from death to life and love. You will see that the last two lines of the poem are abrupt and not smooth like the first slow part of the sonnet: this is a poetic device to express the sudden shock as her life was transformed, though I don't like this abruptness; do you? Compare this with the last two lines of the Shakespeare sonnet which I have sent also. Do you think Elizabeth could have written more beautiful lines and still expressed the sudden transformation just as well? She describes it in terms of the common trick of English children, and of lovers, of creeping up behind someone, putting their hands over the person's eyes and saying, 'Guess who?' although I doubt that actually happened; do children do that in Taiwan?

A little explanation: Theocritus was a Greek poet from Syracuse who lived in the third century BC. He is thought of as the father of pastoral poetry: that is, poetry which idealizes the country and the lives of farmers. Perhaps his main importance is that his work was a strong influence on the Roman poet Virgil three centuries later. Virgil's bucolic (that is, country) poetry, when it was translated from Latin into English around the end of the seventeenth century, had in turn a great influence on English life, poetry, art and landscape design. Elizabeth could read ancient Greek, 'his antique tongue,' (that is, his ancient language) and in the first part of the sonnet she compares the happy rural life depicted in Theocritus' poetry with her own 'sweet sad years'.

The only other explanation you might need is the use of ware' for aware' to reduce the syllables from two to one to keep the metre.

The story is true, but there is also a play about it, called The Barretts of Wimpole Street, which you might find in a second-hand-book shop.

I have hurt my back working on my boat and cannot do very much at present so it is quite pleasant sitting here thinking about poetry and writing letters. But if the poetry interferes too much with all the other work you have to do you must say so.

Sonnets from the Portuguese, by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning (1806-1861)

I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was 'ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove, —
'Guess now who holds thee?'— 'Death, 'I said. But there,

The silver answer rang, — Not Death, but Love.'