Mapping Sublimity: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese

Citation metadata

Author: Jerome Mazzaro
Date: Fall 1991
From: Essays in Literature(Vol. 18, Issue 2)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,890 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

[(essay date fall 1991) In the following essay, Mazzaro investigates Barrett Browning's use of the sublime in the poems of Sonnets from the Portuguese, viewing it as a response to her life-changing relationship with Robert Browning.]

For a Renaissance scholar and modernist like Robert B. Heilman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet "How do I love thee?" (43) with its "piling up of abstractions and generalizations ... gives a positive effect of insincerity." It "is as embarrassing as all platform rhetoric." He compares the poem's matter to Goneril's similar protestation of love for her father in Shakespeare's King Lear (I.i.58-62), distorting the inappropriateness of Goneril's emotions for a parent into an attack on Barrett Browning's verse technique.1 Certainly, as T. S. Eliot remarks in "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921), between Shakespeare and Barrett Browning a change or "dissociation of sensibility set in." No longer, as in the poetry of Edmund Spenser, were emotions to be set off by the poet's constructing an external and conventional emblem or image to which a reader's emotions would sympathetically respond. Rather, as William Wordsworth noted in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), poems and their subjects would rise internally from a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." In the case of the Romantic poets, whom Barrett Browning succeeded, the emotion most often sought was that of the sublime, situated, as religious writers like Robert Lowth held, in terror and shrinkage associated with contemplating divinity, eternity, etc. or, as Wordsworth maintained, in mentally expansive moments amid primitive nature or, as in his "Upon the Sight of a Beautiful Picture" (1815), amid the modest and commonplace.2 Wordsworth's own evocations of the sublime in his poetry in terms of terror, transgressed boundaries, and spatial metaphors have been ably argued,3 and in Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) Barrett Browning seems intent on adapting the terror and physicality of these metaphors to her own encounter late in life with love. In so doing, she is not always involved, as Heilman infers that she might be, in expressing literary sincerity.

Barrett Browning's interests in sublimity are everywhere evident in her Prefaces. She not only uses them to reject the opinion "that poetry is not a proper vehicle for abstract ideas" but speaks of poetry and its aims in moral superlatives. In the Preface to The Battle of Marathon (1819), for instance, she calls poetry the "noblest" human production: it "elevates the mind to heaven, kindles within it unwonted fires, and bids it throb with feelings exalting to its nature." She chooses to model her own work on Homer, "the sublime poet of antiquity," hoping, like him, to awaken audiences "to the praise of valour, honour, patriotism, and, best of all, to a sense of the high attributes of the Deity, though darkly and mysteriously revealed." Seven years later, she invokes the "sublime" Dante, wishing that, in An Essay on Mind, "the sublime circuit of intellect ... had fallen to the lot of a spirit more powerful than [hers]," so that the work's "vastness" of design and "infinite" subject might have been better embraced. Longinus, "the Homer of critics," is invoked in the Preface to The Seraphim (1828) to counter a generation of critics who "believed in the inadmissibility of religion into poetry." Stating that "the very incoherences of poetic dreaming are but the struggle and the strife to reach the True in the Unknown," she claims for herself these "sublime uses of poetry, and the solemn responsibilities of the poet." In the 1844 Preface to her Poems, she again laments "the tendency of the present day ... to sunder the daily life from the spiritual creed," having earlier, in her Preface to Prometheus Bound (1833), faulted Longinus for not having recognized Aeschylus's creating in Prometheus "the sublime of virtue" which her own verse translation seeks to preserve.4

Nor is there any question that, as biographers have pointed out, expansive as well as terrifying moments accompanied the successful suit and daily life on which Sonnets from the Portuguese is built. Elizabeth Barrett was thirty-nine at the time of her first meeting with Robert Browning and already a highly regarded poet. She had suffered the deaths of her mother and brother and had reconciled herself to ill health, opium addiction, and the foregoing of many of the rewards that an active life offers. She was reclusive, bookish, contemplative, and intellectual, and, although not the "confined" and "almost hermetically sealed" figure that R. H. Horne describes in A New Spirit of the Age (1844), she had turned her thoughts toward death.5 Now, she was forced by Browning's insistence to consider turning these thoughts back toward life, surrendering her chastity, marrying, and devoting herself once again to the risks and disappointments of an active existence. In doing so, she would be defying a dictatorial father who characteristically would oppose the action and who, since her brother's death, had not reproached her for her part in it. Moreover, by the union, she would be giving up a direct relationship that she had forged with God in order to stand, as Saint Paul observed, in relation to a husband as that husband did to God and as the church does to Christ (Ephesians 5:21-24). Rather than the vividness and gentle agitations of beauty, the conflict, implications, and resolutions of these possibilities affected her deepest being.6

There is no question, either, that formally some of the techniques that Renaissance poets used to assert sincerity in their sonnets are used by Barrett Browning in realizing parts of the sequence. With their rigorous abbaabbacdcdcd Petrarchan rhyme scheme and Miltonic disregard of line end and division into octave and sestet, the poems suggest that, much as in the sonnets of John Donne and John Milton, violations to form occur because the emotions or thoughts are in excess of or different from what convention allows. The failure of the content of Donne's "At the round earth's imagined corners," for instance, to fit neatly the abbaabbacdcdee rhyme scheme that he provides is, in part, a tribute to the forcefulness of the poem's vision of world end and a reinforcement of the destruction and transformation that take place. Both he and Milton accepted the sonnet form as lingua franca for ideas and strong emotions and saw their formal violations of it as acceptable, more truly personally reflective weddings of form to content.7 Barrett Browning, like Wordsworth before her, seems, in contrast, to have to justify not adjustments to form but the very idea of the sonnet as an adequate embodiment of or vehicle for true emotion. Wordsworth's comparisons of the form to a prison which "no prison is" and to what in Milton's hands "became a trumpet" that let him blow "soul-animated strains" are here relevant. At times, in the Sonnets from the Portuguese, form and content are so deliberately left at odds to mark not excess but empty and artificial boundaries that periodically, on grounds independent of sincerity, critics other than Heilman have called the competence of Barrett Browning's verse technique into question.

These critics see in Barrett Browning's submissions to a system of measure (line) and closure (rhyme) that does not measure or close and in her appeals for authority and convention to biblical and literary antecedents that do not quite correspond an impetuosity, faulty judgment, or misplaced ingenuity. They cite the "Latinate horrors, strained conceits, and specious supernatural intervention" that generally mar her verse and note, in the failure of these poems to observe line endings and divide neatly into octet and sestet, "the straining muscles and suffused countenance of the prisoner in the strait-jacket." In the much praised "Sonnet 5" ("I lift my heavy heart up solemnly"), for example, they are united in pointing out the imprecision of Sophocles's Electra as a correlative for the poet's feelings about her dead brother. Electra is mistaken about Orestes's being dead, and a reader's knowledge of this fact confuses the poem's impression. Critics are similarly embarrassed by the false self-depreciation that occurs in Sonnets "3" and "4" and by images that seem to make sense only as they are explained by the poet's life and letters. They have also objected on occasion to the poet's choice of language and the exaggerated nature of many of her contrasts. These failures in presenting precise correlatives for emotion have led even supporters of her work like Alethea Hayter to call the result a "cornucopia" of "rich confused fruits" and pronounce the "much-praised" sequence "not her best work" because in it "she is dealing with an emotion too new and powerful for her to transmute ... into universally valid terms."8

Moreover, as a result of gender, temperament, or a decision to follow history, the poems do not adhere either to the stereotypes of Victorian romance or to most Renaissance love sequences. Victorian social conventions provided no ready serious models for centering on an active older woman in love. They dictated, rather, that "good" women in love be young, submissive, devout, attractive, patient, helpless, and passive. Their function was to lift "carnal" man into a "higher life." Nor were Renaissance conventions with their cupids, arrows, and love sickness more accommodating. Love did not enter by the eye and take root in the heart. Nor was the speaker--like the speakers of so many older sequences--the initial pursuer languishing in pain at a beloved's cruelty. Rather, as Dorothy Mermin points out, the sequence confounds what "earlier love poetry had kept separate and opposite: speaker and listener, subject and object of desire, male and female." It begins with the sudden intrusion of love and the reasons why it must or should not occur. The sequence then moves to love's acceptance in calls for closeness and union that are repeatedly imaged as occurring between the "darkness" of the speaker's life before love entered and her views of God and eternity. By "Sonnet 22," love is accepted, and with the exception of "Sonnet 35," the last half of the sequence bears no indications of regret. In "Sonnet 35," the speaker wonders briefly whether, having invited disowning, she will miss home and family. It is the sequence's celebration of joy as a reversal of fortune and a joint reflection on real life happiness that prompted its early appeal. In addition to a sign of divine favor, the successful overcoming of impediments, differences, and distances is, as Glennis Stephenson remarks, the substance of "all great love stories" and makes "the consummation, when it occurs, ... appear all the more moving and perfect."9

Nonetheless, while true and significant, the poet's supposed impetuosity and the sequence's failures to adhere to Victorian and Renaissance love conventions explain less some of its oppositions of content and form and occasional absences of sincerity than do Lowth's characterizations of the sublime. In Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1787), Lowth cites not only the presence of "elevated sentiments" and bright, animated, energetic, and uncommon language but also the reluctance of the text "to fix on any single point." The mind moves "continually from one object to another," suddenly and frequently changing persons, especially in addresses and expostulations and, at times, in the very act of uttering, catches suddenly at a new and sometimes redundant expression that appears more animated and energetic. Likewise occurring at these times are frequent changes or variations in tense. In dealing with deity, Lowth remarks that "nothing ... is nobler or more majestic" than a description "carried on by a kind of continued negation." Boundaries "are gradually extended on every side, and at length totally removed; [and] the mind is insensibly led on towards infinity." Citing as "the most perfect example ... of the sublime ode" a text "which possesses a sublimity dependent wholly upon the greatness of the conceptions, and the dignity of the language, without any peculiar excellence in the form and arrangement," he prepares the way for statements like S. T. Coleridge's that "nothing that has a shape can be sublime except by metaphor ab occasione ad rem" and the belief that forms like the sonnet might become a series of boundaries whose inability to contain a writer's "utmost faculties and grandest imagery" contributes to a feeling of majesty and the sometimes inexpressible majesty of God.10

This emphasis on the sublime would directly affect sincerity by affecting the sequence's ability to create and sustain character. First, character resides in a grammar of coherence, and the sudden shifts in person, tone, tense, emotion, and diction which Lowth details detract from a central identifiable focal point. But even if this point were to be manifest, a common trait of sublimity is a feeling of transport out of one's characteristical focus. In the case of Shakespeare's characters whose transports derive not from sublimity but from passion, Dr. Johnson notes that they so come to act and speak under "the influence of these general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated" that they manifest "nothing characteristical." The choice for an editor's "correctly" assigning speeches to a specific actor hinges on extrinsic evidence. Indeed, sublime transport differs markedly from both the internally consistent unifying voice, lifestyle, outlook, and behavior of the secular Renaissance love sequence and the violations of form and emotionally based meditational transports of its religious poetry. In the sonnets of Donne, for example, the elevated passions of the sestet are prepared for by the octet's equally intense context- and self-defining interactive language and central binding image. Thus, while "escapist," they are, nonetheless, "in character" with the octave psychologically and theologically. In the sonnets of George Herbert, where, as in those of Barrett Browning, the opacity of verbal interaction is weaker and no distanced persona emerges, the degree that a unified or sincere self occurs is gauged outside the poem in weighing the poem's language against the poet's other works or life.11

In the opening two sonnets of Sonnets from the Portuguese, one can see how these elements of the sublime are incorporated into the sequence. The first sonnet takes the reader from the comfortable and bounded imaginative realm of literary reminiscence into the frightening and unbounded realm of mystical appearance:

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 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.'

The poem opens on a figure who thinks of life in terms of art, in this instance, of life as imaged by Theocritus in "Idyll 15" (ll. 102-05). The allusion is precise and, indeed, an adequate translation of the Greek. In the Idyll, the lines appear as part of a song that is sung by an accomplished female poet and contrast with the everyday chatter of the two women who pause to hear the singer. Their "dear and wished for years" not only revive briefly the annual return of Adonis from the dead which the original Greek celebrates but also embody return in their being themselves recollection. With their "gift" of recovery, they thus oppose "the sweet, sad ... melancholy years" of the second quatrain and their implied irretrievable loss that "flung / A shadow" across the speaker's life. This shadow suddenly gives way in the sestet to the awareness of "a mystic Shape" which seems to echo and combine those visionary episodes of Eliphaz in Job (4:12-16), Jacob in Genesis (32:27-30), and Paul in Acts (9:3-5).12 It violently draws the speaker "backward by the hair" and eventually reveals itself as Love. In so doing, it rejects her expectations of Death and, by proximity, so merges Love and Death that, coevally as one is led by "mystic" and the calculated incoherence into the realm of the sublime, one is returned to Theocritus and the associations there of love and death with Adonis and Venus and Persephone and Dis. Given Barrett Browning's Preface to The Seraphim (1838), one is led, in addition, to Christ's death as love and the Christ-like imagery that will surround the suitor of the sequence.13

Moreover, one has in the conflation of referents for the "mystic Shape" an example of the inability to grasp exactly and, therefore, the need to try several metaphors that the sublime occasions.14 In their edition of The Complete Works (1900), Charlotte Porter and Helen Clarke identify the wording of the incident with Athena's action toward Achilles in Book 1 of the Iliad (1:197-98).15 There is, however, in the Barrett Browning telling no anger, a reversal of gender, and no prior acquaintance with the deity. Achilles recognizes the goddess immediately. The incident does seem to suggest what theologians call "catabatic mysticism" (i.e., divinity's approaching the human), and it is the suggestion of such an approach that the verses from Job, Genesis, and Acts make their claims. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757, 1759), Edmund Burke calls the Job passage "amazingly sublime," and Job's passing from joy to loss to regained joy parallels the speaker's passage in the sequence from "childhood joy" to the loss of a brother to regained happiness. But here, too, differences exist. In Job, the mystic shape appears before not behind Eliphaz and draws him forward to the belief that one cannot comprehend and, therefore, should not presume to interpret God's measure. In the parallels from Genesis and Acts, the violence which the figure displays by drawing the speaker backward by the hair is echoed in Jacob's wrestling and Paul's unhorsing and their efforts to know the figure's name in the speaker's query and disclosure.16 The failure of the sonnet's content, consequently, to fit formal demands is understandable, given the poem's sublime elements.

In the second sonnet, a different kind of confusion associated with sublimity occurs. The suitor is introduced, and the seemingly boundless realm which deity inhabits is imaged as terrifying audible darkness.17 Deity's opposing Nay, which furnishes the speaker's first effort at dissuasion, is so absolute that even death could not make her feel more closed to the gentleman than she now feels. Expressed as visual exclusion, this sense speaks to the suitor's physical being and, building on the "only" and "all" of the sonnet's opening line, contrasts with the presumed limitlessness of God. Had God so ordained, the poem ventures, as terrifying and vast as the greatest efforts of man and nature are, they would not have been able to prevent the union.

But only three in all God's universe
Have heard this word thou hast said,--Himself beside
Thee speaking, and me listening! and replied
One of us. . that was God, . . and laid the curse
So darkly on my eyelids, as to amerce
My sight from seeing thee,--that if I had died,
The deathweights, placed there, would have signified
Less absolute exclusion. 'Nay' is worse
From God than from all others, O my friend!
Men could not part us with their worldly jars,
Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend;
Our hands would touch for all the mountain-bars,--
And, heaven being rolled between us at the end,
We should but vow the faster for the stars.

In drawing the expanses of personal terror and shrinkage which accompany the sublime when it is associated with deity, the sonnet again displays confusion and incoherence. Phrase is piled upon phrase, and orderly progressions of thought are twice interrupted by qualifying parenthetical matter. First, in line 4, "one" is identified as "God," and then, in a further compounding of confusion, the "curse" of line 4 is identified as a punishment before its exclusionary nature is given. "Amerce," as scholars have pointed out, joins the speaker's fate verbally to those angels of Paradise Lost who for Satan's fault are "amerc't / Of Heav'n" (1:609-10). Presumably, her similar opposition to divine will by allowing the suit will deprive her of the gentleman's "Christ-like" sight as these angels have been deprived of the sight of God. But one has almost to eliminate the interruption in order to understand the situation fully. These syntactical and sequential confusions lessen as the poem moves in the sestet to a sense of positive expansion associated with the natural sublime and recalls the impediments to "the marriage of true minds" that Shakespeare writes of in "Sonnet 116." This move from confusion and incoherence is conveyed in lines which, despite their negations, honor rhyme and formal line end. They restore the worldly and literary senses of order on which the sequence opened and, hence, round off the sonnets from or bridge them to the remainder of the sequence. The sonnets are further separated from succeeding accounts by their being cast in the past tense.

Sincerity in these opening sonnets is not at issue, since the speaker's role in regard to determining significant action remains essentially passive. She does not choose the appearance of the "mystic Shape" or God's judgment against a courtship. One would suspect that, as the poems deal more with choice, "daily life," and a realm which the lovers inhabit, oppositions of form and content and confusion as signs of sublimity should diminish and more traditional and containable approaches to sincerity appear. This, however, is not the case. Syntax, for the most part, does grow less obscure, but there are in the remaining sonnets only seven--"4," "8," "13," "16," "27," "35," and "43"--which can be divided cleanly into octet and sestet. Despite the often balanced and dialectical nature of the subjects, there is, moreover, little or no attention paid to rhetorical balance or proportion. Sentences are constructed loosely as in conversation, and interruptions and paddings for the sake of rhyme persist. As in the opening sonnets, one draws from the informality, immediacy, italicized words, and many bracketed phrases the same sense of the speaker's catching suddenly at vastness with new and more animated expressions that Lowth associates with sublimity. But whereas the kind of conflation which occurs in the image of the "mystic Shape" of "Sonnet 1" seems not to recur, there is in the treatment of subjects, as in "Sonnet 25," an amplification or diffusion, "many circumstances being added, and a variety of imagery introduced for the purpose of illustration." Lowth associates this amplification with sublimity, and, as in verses of a song, the differing allusions and metaphors of the "varied robes" extend and ornament the subject, supporting an impression of poetic range and individual versatility.18

The changes to the image of the heart as a heavy weight on which "Sonnet 25" begins exemplify the practice. As Hayter notes, the image appears to change as if the speaker were unaware "where [it was] leading her, as one [is] in conversation."19 This "conversational" artlessness continues in the speaker's failures to limit her statements to either quatrain or octet. Line 4 is made to overflow by simile, and line 8, by withholding "my heavy heart" for emphasis, and one has none of the reflection or shifting viewpoint that is customary to the sonnet sestet.

A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne
From year to year until I saw thy face,
And sorrow after sorrow took the place
Of all those natural joys as lightly worn
As the stringed pearls. . each lifted in its turn
By a beating heart at dance-time. Hopes apace
Were changed to long despairs, till God's own grace
Could scarcely lift above the world forlorn
My heavy heart. Then thou didst bid me bring
And let it drop adown thy calmly great
Deep being! Fast it sinketh, as a thing
Which its own nature doth precipitate,
While thine doth close above it, mediating
Betwixt the stars and the unaccomplished fate.

The key to the poem, however, lies not, as Hayter proposes, in the contrasting "heavy heart" and "stringed pearls" of lines 1 and 5 but in the "dance-time" of line 6. The allusion is to Ecclesiastes 3:4 and its mention of "a time to mourn, and a time to dance" and corresponds to Barrett Browning's use of women "stringing pearls" amid "universal anguish" (2:207) in Aurora Leigh (1856). The "heavy heart" of the opening line is, thus, not only, as Hayter conjectures, "the heart as a heavy locket," but more than an item of jewelry: it is, once again, as in "Sonnet 1," the heart in mourning, and perhaps even Job's "heart of stone" (41:24). As so often in the sequence, the poet appears to be moved coevally by the death of her brother and the sheltered existence to which women are relegated, and by being so complexly moved, she lends strong support to Angela Leighton's argument for the sequence's dual Muses and to recent feminist interpretations. In regard especially to the former, Leighton notes that "the harsh superimposition of love on grief in the Sonnets betrays the extent to which the role[s]" of the dead brother and live suitor are "the same." They are objects of the poet's "imaginative desire to write."20

Readers are thus to infer that before the suitor's arrival, the speaker's heavy heart had come to resemble that heart described by God just before Job's submission and the restoration of his good fortune. Sorrows have replaced what, in the brother's company, had been "natural joys," until, in a reference to Luke 24:2, "God's own grace / Could scarcely lift [it]." Here, in a recurrent but not continuous analogy of the suitor's impact to Christ's, the heart/stone becomes the stone of Christ's tomb, and, through the suggestion of redemption through Christ's death and resurrection, the speaker approaches a status similar to that grace which Job enjoys at his trial's end. Immediately, the next line returns to Ecclesiastes and "a time to cast away stones" (3:5). The statement is, as biblical interpreters note, "a metaphor implying the act of marital intercourse." Sinking beneath the surface of what appears to be well water, the heart/stone finds itself being closed over by the suitor. The action not only conveys a wifely Pauline submergence of self to replace the sheltered life of lines 4-6 but, as in a number of sonnets, mediates a middleground "Betwixt the stars and unaccomplished fate." In these differing appearances, the "heart" image offers neither the opening sonnet's conflation of allusions nor a unified binding image by which, as in Donne's sonnets, readers may infer a unified character and sincerity. Rather, it presents a series or cluster of images loosely associated about a belief in the determined seasons, life rhythms, contrasts, and accountings of Ecclesiastes.

Along with "Sonnet 22," "Sonnet 43," which Heilman attacks, locates the place of these seasons as existing, like the Theocritean text of "Sonnet 1," somewhere between divine sublimity and the "daily life" of what "Sonnet 22" calls "the unfit / Contrarious moods of men." The sonnets, thus, form part of a treatment of distance whose romantic development Stephenson touches on. Not only, as she argues, are the distances between the speaker and suitor indicative of stages in worldly desire, distances between the speaker and subsequently the lovers and God indicate stages of heavenly desire. In a kind of pre-Eliotic "mythic method," Barrett Browning shapes these distances to a belief that "the contemplation of excellence produces excellence, if not similar, yet parallel."21 Again, as elsewhere in the sequence, this "excellence" includes literary models as well as poetic impulses, and again, Paul's depictions of worldly and divine love color the models on which the poems focus. In both sonnets, Barrett Browning endorses Paul's views on marriage's place, but unlike him, she advocates here not the male priority of "Sonnet 25" but parity between the worldly participants. The advocacy reflects what critics describe as the poet's deep dissatisfaction with women's role in marriage. Barrett Browning knew that her mother's marriage had not been happy, and, as Hayter notes, "she had seen too many instances of mistakes and disillusions, treacheries and tyrannies, in other marriages."22 Nonetheless, the poet appears to except from attack her own present circumstances, having insisted in "Sonnet 14" that the suitor's love "be for nought" but "love's sake only," agreeing with Shakespeare's "Sonnet 116" that "love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds."

Having accepted the suit as part of God's will and restoration to grace, she imagines the worldly consequences of its acknowledgment and fulfillment:

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvéd point,--what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us, and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovèd,--where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

Again, as in "Sonnet 25," neither the formalities of line, quatrain, or octet are adhered to. Lines 4 and 8 overflow once more into 5 and 9. The expression "face to face" appears in 1 Corinthians after Paul's description of love as the manner in which one will see when "the imperfect will pass away" (13:4-8, 10), and Exodus 25:18-20 and the ark of the covenant have been suggested as the origin of the souls as two angels standing face to face. Dante, Shelley, Milton, and Blake may have contributed, moreover, to the angels' "lengthening wings break[ing] into fire / At either curvéd point."23 The angels' being "face to face" measures, in addition, the movement toward parity which has occurred since "Sonnet 3" when, because of the pair's difference, their "ministering two angels" could only "look surprise / On one another, as they [struck] athwart / Their wings in passing." Determined to stay on earth where their "pure spirits" will be separated from the unfit moods of men, they accept the world's "darkness and the death-hour," knowing that, in the rightness of their love, whatever "bitter wrong" the earth can do them, their feelings will survive. This knowledge reinforces the closing "natural" sublime of "Sonnet 2," where had they had God's approval, "Men could not part [them] with their worldly jars." No longer, it appears, is it deity but the world and her family who pose obstacles ("bitter wrongs") to which their spirits--so long as they do not presume on heaven--are more than a match.

Pauline echoes are again present in the opening lines of "Sonnet 43." Involved here is Paul's prayer that the faithful, grounded in love "may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height" of Christ's love (Ephesians 3:17-19).24 When "feeling out of sight" of such ends, the speaker senses the suitor's less expansive love having metaphorically filled the void. On a different level, the sonnet complements the substitution of the suitor and life for the "visions" and books of "Sonnet 26." The human measures of this love occupy lines 5-8, opposing the apostle's revealed Being and Grace in line 4 with man's imagined Right and Praise. Returning by way of contrast to Paul's statements on divine love in 1 Corinthians 13:11 and Ephesians 3:18, the speaker recounts in the sestet a history of her conversion from "old griefs" and "childhood's faith" to a love that seemed to restore her "lost saints" and, should God "choose," will grow better after death:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,--I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!--and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

The sonnet is one of those few that theoretically can be divided into quatrain, octet, and sestet, though internally the proportions of the seven ways in which the speaker loves and an eighth manner which she projects are anything but balanced. They run from three to one line in length and do, as Heilman charges, contain a lot of abstractions. Purists, in addition, may object to the near rhymes of "ways" and "Grace," "use" and "lose," and "faith" and "breath." Still, in light of the sonnet's careful demarcations of divine, human, and personal realms, Heilman's complaints of faulty verse technique, insincerity, and platform rhetoric appear excessive. William T. Going's response that "in context" the sonnet "is not 'embarrassing ... platform rhetoric,'" while promising, raises new questions.25 Foremost among them is how consistently is the sequence to be read. If, as critics charge, Barrett Browning is unable at times to carry an image through one sonnet, how valid is an approach that insists upon a selective consistency of "former phrases or images"? How much weight, for instance, can be given the poet's possible uses of Achilles in Sonnets "1" and "27" or her return to Theocritus in "Sonnet 40"? Thematically the problem of irreconcilable opposites (Polyphemus and Galatea) seems to have been resolved earlier, and although Lowth mentions Theocritus's elegance and knowledge of Solomon's Song of Songs, he cites neither Idyll "11" or "15."26 True, Polyphemus's ability to use song to overcome his feelings for the unresponsive sea nymph contrasts with the suitor's unwavering fidelity, but is anything more specifically intended than a general bookishness from which the speaker claims disruption in "Sonnet 26"?

Readers have experienced, moreover, at least two methods of associative development in the sequence influencing their understanding--conflation and amplification. In "Sonnet 43," one has, in addition, an unreconciled refinement of language usage similar to that separating thought and feeling in Eliot's "dissociation of sensibility" and echoing that division of literary and everyday language in "Sonnet 1." There are in the poem's three divisions the mind "elevated to heaven" by its incorporation of Pauline allusion and religious language ("soul," "out-of-sight," "Being," and "ideal" rather than social "Grace"); human aspiration in references to "everyday," "need," "sun and candlelight," and associations of both "Right" and "Praise" with man; and personal history in the sestet's movement from "childhood's faith" and "lost saints" to an image of eternity. While recapturing thematically the sequence's associative "fields" of religion, daily life, and personal history, the divisions, by their exclusions of one another, result not in perhaps an intended echo of choral strophe, antistrophe, and epode but in what nineteenth-century psychologists call a "divided self."27 Not so much the abstractions that Heilman cites but the failure of these "fields of consciousness" to unite into a credible literary voice produces the sonnet's impressions of insincerity and "embarrassing ... platform rhetoric." Clearly, had Barrett Browning been able early to infuse her theological and learned bent into common speech, the absence of conviction which Heilman associates with an inability to find "images to realize, to prove her existence" might not have occurred.

Still, if the objections which Heilman raises in response to "Sonnet 43" can be identified with the failure of the sequence's non-sublime poems to achieve what Louis L. Martz calls "the unity" of a "meditative style,"28 the other readers' objections to the sequence's formal transgressions and "careless" verse technique remain unchallenged. Given that the divisions of the conventional sonnet are best suited in narratives whose lines are familiar and that, by impeding horizontal movement, they assist vertical self-definition, a narrative line which chooses to confuse gender roles and refuses to adhere to Victorian stereotypes or Renaissance conventions must be seen as novel. The novelty is increased, moreover, by the poet's belief in the language, if not the actual existence, of a wordly "divided self." For such a narrative, expository and lyrical strains cannot be expected to occur at pre-set and regular intervals, and for readers to expect that they should is perhaps a bit unrealistic.29 Given the singularity that Barrett Browning assigns to the suit, it seems unrealistic as well to expect either adherence to conventionalizing measures and closes or exact correspondence in the work's biblical and literary allusions. The protagonist is not offered as a new ideal. Thus, much as imprecision and formal violations function in the sublime poems to suggest a release from religious preconceptions, imprecision and formal violations function in these sonnets of daily life to convey release from social expectations. The poet's success in both endeavors can be measured positively in the surprise which critics note in their readings of Sonnets from the Portuguese and negatively in the "embarrassment" and "Peeping Tom sensations" that they complain of.


1. Robert B. Heilman, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese XLIII," Explicator 4 (1945): Item 3.

2. T. S. Eliot, "The Metaphysical Poets," Selected Essays. 3rd ed. enlarged (London: Faber, 1958) 288; William Wordsworth, "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," in Critical Theory since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (New York: Harcourt, 1971) 435. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Jews, trans. G. Gregory. 2 vols (London: Ogles, Duncan, and Cochran, 1816).

3. See in particular Samuel Holt Monk, The Sublime (New York: Modern Language Association, 1935); Ernest Lee Tuveson, The Imagination as a Means of Grace (1960; rpt. New York: Gordian, 1974); Albert O. Wlecke, Wordsworth and the Sublime (Berkeley: U of California P, 1973); Patrick Holland, "Wordsworth and the Sublime," The Wordsworth Circle 5 (1974): 17-22; Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976); and Jonathan Lamb, "Hartley and Wordsworth: Philosophical Language and Figures of the Sublime," MLN [Modern Language Notes] 97 (1982): 1064-85. In this essay I have relied for my verse quotations on Miroslava Wein Dow's variorum edition of Sonnets from the Portuguese (Troy, NY: Whitston, 1980).

4. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Poetical Works (London: Oxford UP, 1932) 1, 2, 29, 30, 79, 80, 103, 139, 140.

5. R. H. Horne, A New Spirit of the Age (London: Oxford UP, 1907) 338-39.

6. See, for example, Susan Zimmerman, "Sonnets from the Portuguese: A Negative and A Positive Context," Mary Wollstonecraft Newsletter 2/1 (1973): 7-20; Glennis Stephenson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Poetry of Love (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1989); and Daniel Karlin, The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1985).

7. For a discussion of these issues, see my essay "Striking through the Mask: Donne and Herbert at Sonnets," in Like Season'd Timber: New Essays on George Herbert, ed. Edmund Miller and Robert DiYanni (New York: Lang, 1987) 241-53, and "Gaining Authority: John Milton at Sonnets," Essays in Literature 15 (1988): 3-12.

8. Dow, xii; Alethea Hayter, Mrs. Browning: A Poet's Work and Its Setting (New York: Barnes, 1963) 105, 106, 107.

9. Dorothy Mermin, "The Female Poet and the Embarrassed Reader: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese," ELH 48 (1981): 352. Stephenson, 75.

10. Lowth 1: 317-18, 325, 326, 330, 352, 2:247. Coleridge as quoted in Wlecke 74.

11. Samuel Johnson, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo (New Haven: Yale UP, 1968) 1: 62, 64. For passion or the pathetic's role in sublimity, especially among English writers, see Monk.

12. Grover Smith offers an additional parallel in the verses of Titus Petronius Arbiter, although he recognizes that it is unlikely that Barrett Browning knew that poet's work; see Notes and Queries 191 (1946): 190. In her 'Sonnets from the Portuguese' and the Love Sonnet Tradition (New York: Philosophical Library, 1985), Shaakeh S. Agajanian proposes that the sonnet is an "Annunciation" of sorts and compares its implied interior and, hence, bounded domestic space to "medieval and early Renaissance paintings of the event" (69-70).

13. Browning, Poetical Works, 78. See, in addition, her "Loved Once" and "A Supplication for Love" (282-83, 317). One might also wish to compare the abruptness of this "mystic Shape" to the orderliness of the "mystic dame" of "A Vision of Life and Death," (66-67).

14. Lowth 1: 107-08; Weiskel 21-22, 35.

15. The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen Clarke (1900; rpt. New York: AMS, 1973), as cited by Dow, Mermin, et al.

16. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J. T. Boulton (London: Routledge, 1958) 63. Again, readers must decide whether the "impression" of these differences facilitates or impedes understanding. For "catabatic mysticism," see The Writings of St. Paul, ed. Wayne A. Meeks (New York: Norton, 1972) 381.

17. I am not one of the critics who equates the "mystic Shape" of "Sonnet 1" and the "thou" of "Sonnet 2." See Agajanian 72. That Barrett Browning felt God stood as a barrier to their love is stated in a letter dated 16 September 1845: "But something worse than even a sense of unworthiness, GOD, has put between us!"--The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett 1845-1846, ed. Elvan Kintner (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1969) 1:195.

18. Lowth, 1: 351. It should be noted, perhaps, that Longinus distinguishes between amplification and sublimity in Part 12 of his treatise. See Adams 85.

19. Hayter 106.

20. Hayter 106. Angela Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Sussex: Harvester, 1986) 107.

21. Barrett Browning, Poetical Works 138. Stephenson 77-80.

22. Hayter 189. See also Wendell Stacy Johnson, Sex and Marriage in Victorian Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975) 54-57.

23. Robert M. Gay, "E. B. Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese," Explicator 1 (December 1942): Item 24. Barrett Browning's letters reveal that she was acquainted with the works of each of these writers prior to the publication of the Sonnets in 1850, albeit her knowledge of Dante was gained through Henry Francis Cary's translation. Gay also suggests that popular illustrations of angels may have influenced her description.

24. John S. Phillipson, "'How Do I Love Thee?'--an Echo of St. Paul," Victorian Newsletter 22 (1962): 22.

25. William T. Going, "E. B. Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese XLIII," Explicator 11 (June 1953): Item 58.

26. Lowth 2: 307-08. See Zimmerman for a view of the Sonnets relationship to Solomon's Song of Songs.

27. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New Hyde Park: University Books, 1963) 166-88. This "divided self" resembles more that "presentation of self" which Erving Goffman writes of in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor, 1959) than "the divided self" of R. D. Laing's The Divided Self (Baltimore: Penguin, 1965). Barrett Browning uses Greek choral odes elsewhere as in Prometheus Bound (1833) and The Seraphim (1838), and it would require no major adjustments to the sonnet form to interpret its traditional three divisions in such a manner.

28. Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven: Yale UP, 1954) 323-24.

29. For a discussion of these matters, see S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1907) 2: 23-24, and my Transformations in the Renaissance English Lyric (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1970) 144-45. For the dual strains of poetic autobiography, see my The Figure of Dante (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981) 117-38.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420072642