Sonnets from the Portuguese
Table of Contents
Sonnets from the Portuguese was written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning between 1845 and 1846 and was published in 1850. It is a collection of forty-four love sonnets written for her, then, future husband Robert Browning. The content and tone of the sonnets change as her relationship with Browning relationship progressed. In the earlier sonnets she expresses her doubt and fear about beginning a relationship with Browning. As the relationship progressed Barrett Browning was able to overcome her anxieties, and eventually, they took a more accepting and passionate tone. Originally, she did not plan to publish the collection due to their extremely personal content, but changed her mind after Robert Browning insisted, saying they were perhaps the best sequence of English-written sonnets since Shakespeare’s time. In order to maintain some privacy, Browning disguised the title in hopes people would believe they were translations from foreign sonnets. According to Wikipedia, the collection was originally called Sonnets from the Bosnian, but was changed to Portuguese after Robert’s suggestion, perhaps stemming from his nick-name for Elizabeth: “my little Portuguese.”
The sonnets are some of the some of the most famous love poems of the Victorian Age, or any other. The opening line of “Sonnet 43” has become so deeply embedded in our culture that even people who have never read the poem know it. However, Barret Browning’s sonnets are so much more than just this one line. They are a work of passion, doubt, fear, and most importantly, love.
I thought once how Theocritus¹ ² 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. Straightaway 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.”
Browning starts out by touching on the work of the Greek writer Theocritus. Browning had an extensive knowledge of the classic writers, having studied the Greek language itself and keeping close correspondence with Greek scholars. This first sonnet is an excellent stepping stone for the progression of emotions that will be experienced through the next 43. It expresses the depression and sadness that she had felt for most of her life, due to her extreme illness and isolation. However, the “Shape” mentioned was not the impending feeling of death as she thought, but the surprising sensation of falling in love with Robert Browning.
Indeed this very love which is my boast,
And which, when rising up from breast to brow,
Doth crown me with a ruby large enow¹
To draw men’s eyes and prove the inner cost,—
This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,
I should not love withal, unless that thou
Hadst set me an example, shown me how,
When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed,
And love called love. And thus, I cannot speak
Of love even, as a good thing of my own:
Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,
And placed it by thee on a golden throne,—
And that I love (O soul, we must be meek!)
Is by thee only, whom I love alone.
The first line of “Sonnet 12”, expresses a great sense of pride because of the love Barrett Browning is experiencing. Lines 2 through 4 express how the love the fills her and those around her notice it. In lines 5 through 9 she acknowledges that this love is solely a product of the love Browning has shown her. He has taught her how to love and before him she did not know how to love. Lines 10 through 14 describe how his soul has helped hers up, and placed it along aside his, and because of this she can now love and she loves only him. 1. enough
And wilt thou have me fashion into speech
The love I bear thee, finding words enough,
And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough,
Between our faces, to cast light on each?—
I drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach
My hand to hold my spirit so far off
From myself—me—that I should bring thee proof
In words, of love hid in me out of reach.
Nay, let the silence of my womanhood
Commend my woman-love to thy belief,—
Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,
And rend¹ the garment of my life, in brief,
By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,
Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief
In the first two lines of “Sonnet 13”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning asks Robert if he wants her to write how she feels about him. In lines 3 and 4, she uses the metaphor of a torch in rough winds, which is meant to enlighten what is between them. In line 5, she drops it and goes on to say she cannot describe what she feels between them. In lines 6 through 8, she says she cannot risk herself by describing to him how she feels, and that she will not. In lines 9 through 14, she goes on to say that her silence must act as an answer to his question, otherwise she will relate to him nothing but the grief she has suffered.
1. tear violently
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
‘I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes¹ brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day’—
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.
In lines I and 2 of “Sonnet 14”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning says she wants only to be loved for “love’s sake”. The next four lines describe all the things she does not want to be loved for. She tells us in lines 7 through 9, that she does not want to be loved for these reasons because they are changeable and unreliable. In lines 10 through 12, she says she does not want to loved because he feels sorry for her because one day her tears will dry, and then what is left for him to love. She closes by restating her wish to be loved only for “love’s sake” because that is the only love that lasts.
Sonnets “12”, “13”, and “14”are a few of the sonnets which best express Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s initial reservations regarding her relationship with Browning and how he helps her to overcome them. In “Sonnet 12”, she describes how before Robert Browning, she had no love to call her own. In “Sonnet 13” she tells Robert that she cannot wholly describe her feelings for him because she is still unsure. In “Sonnet 14”, Browning describes the details of what she believes constitutes a real love and her expectations regarding Robert.
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 apace¹
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,
Which thine doth close above it, mediating
Betwixt² the stars and the unaccomplished fate.
This sonnet again touches upon the sorrow and depression that Elizabeth says she experienced most of her life, due to her illness. She expresses that she has lost her childhood, or natural, joys as her sorrows have added in number. Though the sonnet starts in a very melancholy tone, it takes a drastic turn when she mentions “thou,” or Robert Browning, stating that he took away all of her sadness.
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 candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a 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 second to last and most famous sonnet of the collection, Sonnet 43 is the most passionate and emotional, expressing her intense love for Robert Browning repeatedly. Elizabeth says in the second to third lines that she loves Browning with every aspect of her soul. She then goes onto say that she loves him enough that it meets the needs of every day and every night in lines 5 and 6. Through lines 7, 8, 9 and 11 Elizabeth repeats the phrase, “I love thee…” to build intensity and show emphasis. Line 7 says that she loves him “freely,” or willingly, as men who try and reach “Right,” which in this case could mean righteousness, or in correlation with the previous word “freely” it may mean freedom. Line 8 means that she loves him, as it says, purely, without any want for praise. It is interesting that line 9 says that she loves him as passionately, or intensely, as she experienced her old griefs or sufferings, and with a faith as strong as a child’s. This helps to transition into line 11, expressing she loves him as much as she used to love the saints as a child. And the last three lines state that she loves him with all of her life and, God willing, she’ll continue to love him that deeply in the afterlife. It is not surprising that this sonnet is so passionately written, as it helps to show how her love for Robert Browning grew intensely over time, starting out as nothing and blooming into a love that most of us could only wish to experience.
*Texts for Sonnets “12”, “13, “14” taken from:
*Text for Sonnets “1”, “25”, “34” taken from: