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Sonnet 28 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I have posted two of Barrett Browning's better-known selections from Sonnets from the Portuguese in the past: Sonnet 43 (How do I love thee? Let me count the ways) and Sonnet 14 (If thou must love me, let it be for nought).

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is one of the best-known Victorian poets, who was, in fact, better known and appreciated during her lifetime than was her extraordinarily talented husband, Robert Browning. She was so popular, in fact, that when Wordsworth died in 1850, she was considered as a possible successort to the poet laureate position he'd occupied.

Elizabeth Barrett was born in 1806, and began writing poetry as early as age six. She contracted a lung complaint as a teen, and was sickly for the rest of her life. Her first poem was published when she was just fourteen, and from then on she continued to write poetry and essays for publication. In 1845, at the age of 38, Barrett met Robert Browning, who admired some of her published poetry. They courted in secret, because her father wished for none of his children to marry. She was married in a private ceremony and immediately ran off to Italy with Robert Browning, where her health improved; she even had a child.

I recently learned that Emily Dickinson admired Mrs. Browning and her work so much that she kept a framed portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her bedroom. It makes sense - Barrett Browning wrote for publication, and she frequently wrote about issues that she was interested in, including abolition of the slave trade, child labor, and more. Plus she managed to live a balanced life at the same time she was writing, to say nothing of living out her own real-life love story.

In 1850, Elizabeth Barrett Browning published Sonnets from the Portuguese, a series of 44 love poems written for her husband. Today's choice is just past midway through the collection, which is actually a sonnet sequence (the first in the English language in a couple hundred years, since the last known one was by Edmund Spenser) - it's Sonnet 28 (My Letters! all dead paper, mute and white!), in which she is going through the pile of letters she's received from Robert Browning, and apparently had sewn them together on a thread to keep them in order, only now she's undone them and is spilling them into her skirts as she goes through them, commenting on what this or that one says. And that last one that she gets to must be scandalous indeed, because she won't tell us what it says at all!

Sonnet 28
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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 tonight.
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,
Yes 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!

Discussion: It's a Petrarchan or Italianate sonnet, written in iambic pentameter, and using the rhyme scheme ABBAABBACDCDCD. Reading this one, with its em-dashes and its ellipses and such, makes me wonder a bit whether Emily Dickinson took inspiration from her in some of her punctuation choices, or at least took heart that her dashes would be acceptable in the world of poesy.

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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 25th, 2013 04:46 pm (UTC)
I know nothing about writing poetry, but I do enjoy reading it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson are two of my favorites.
Apr. 25th, 2013 06:30 pm (UTC)
Her Sonnets from the Portuguese are so swoonily good.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 26th, 2013 11:24 pm (UTC)
She cannot! She was a proper Victorian lady, and it probably mentioned a body part or something!
Apr. 26th, 2013 07:28 pm (UTC)
Fascinating to learn that Emily Dickinson so admired Elizabeth Barrett Browning that she had a portrait of her right there in her room! Now I'm imagining what their correspondence would have been like, if they'd written...
Apr. 26th, 2013 11:25 pm (UTC)
Oh, please write that story.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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