Updated date:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 31

Barrett Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese" masterfully employs the Petrarchan sonnet in her tribute to her husband, Robert Browning.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 31

The speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnet 31" from Sonnets from the Portuguese appears to be sliding backwards into her earlier cloud of self-doubt. Again, she seems to be questioning her good fortune at attracting such a fine belovèd.

This always musing speaker has grown so accustomed to indulging in sorrow and melancholy that she continues to find it difficult to accept that she can now breathe the fresh air of love, faith, hope, and happiness. The speaker thus is continuing to examine and the self-doubt that seems to haunt her with relief.

Sonnet 31

Thou comest! all is said without a word.
I sit beneath thy looks as children do
In the noon-sun, with souls that tremble through
Their happy eyelids from an unaverred
Yet prodigal inward joy. Behold, I erred
In that last doubt! and yet I cannot rue
The sin most, but the occasion—that we two
Should for a moment stand unministered
By a mutual presence. Ah, keep near and close,
Thou dovelike help! and, when my fears would rise,
With thy broad heart serenely interpose:
Brood down with thy divine sufficiencies
These thoughts which tremble when bereft of those,
Like callow birds left desert to the skies.

Reading of Barrett Browning's Sonnet 31

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 31 is again exploring her self-doubt and sorrowful life.

First Quatrain: Returning to Melancholy

Thou comest! all is said without a word.
I sit beneath thy looks as children do
In the noon-sun, with souls that tremble through
Their happy eyelids from an unaverred

The speaker in sonnet 31 finds herself rethinking one of her earlier episodes of doubt that return to her from time to time despite her growing confidence in the love of her beloved.

The speaker excitedly exclaims, "Thou comest!"—as if she is utterly surprised that he should return. She reports that neither speaks, and she sits in his gaze somewhat as children would do "in the noon-sun."

Their souls are engaged and "tremble" at the "inward joy," even though they hardly understand the meaning or eventual consequences of that joy. As is often the case with this speaker, she is somewhat taken aback by her own emotions.

Second Quatrain: Feeling Like a Prodigal

Yet prodigal inward joy. Behold, I erred
In that last doubt! and yet I cannot rue
The sin most, but the occasion—that we two
Should for a moment stand unministered

The speaker feels as "prodigal" now as she has felt quite early in this budding relationship. As the reader has seen many time before, the speaker’s confidence waxes and wanes. First, she trusts the strength of this new love and then again a "doubt" will creep into her mind.

The speaker has begun to employ code words that hint of a marriage ceremony which she, no doubt, has difficulty believing will ever come to fruition. The speaker, indeed, wonders if the two of them will ever stand and take the vows of husband wife.

First Tercet: A Pathetic Plea

By a mutual presence. Ah, keep near and close,
Thou dovelike help! and, when my fears would rise,
With thy broad heart serenely interpose:

The half-sorrowful speaker offers a pathetic plea, half to her belovèd and half to her own pride, begging that his love remain "near and close," as she calls his assistance "dovelike." The speaker now understands, however, that she will continue to experience those doubts, and likely her "fears would rise" repeatedly.

The speaker continues to assert that her belovèd has a "broad heart," and she believes in his ability to remain stable, an eventuality which seems to give her a feeling of steadiness. The doubting speaker cannot trust her own ability to trust, but she can keep faith that her belovèd will remain strong enough to lift her out of her slough of constant doubt.

Second Tercet: The Simple Knowledge of Being in Love

Brood down with thy divine sufficiencies
These thoughts which tremble when bereft of those,
Like callow birds left desert to the skies.

Taking comfort in her belovèd’s strength and endurance, the speaker asserts that she will be able to endure life in the simple knowledge of being loved by such a strong soul. Again, speaking half to her beloved and half to her own soul, the speaker likens her own soul to baby birds that have been left "to the skies."

As those "callow birds" are nurtured by "divine sufficiencies," the speaker determines to strive to attain and keep the faith that will eventually lead her to her own self-sufficiency. But the speaker will also continue to implore and glorify the relationship with her belovèd, in whose glow she will continue to bask as she proceeds on her journey toward love and fulfillment.

The Brownings

An Overview of Sonnets from the Portuguese

Robert Browning referred lovingly to Elizabeth as "my little Portuguese" because of her swarthy complexion—thus the genesis of the title: sonnets from his little Portuguese to her belovèd friend and life mate.

Two Poets in Love

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese remains her most widely anthologized and studied work. It features 44 sonnets, all of which are framed in the Petrarchan (Italian) form.

The theme of the series explores the development of the budding love relationship between Elizabeth and the man who would become her husband, Robert Browning. As the relationship continues to flower, Elizabeth becomes skeptical about whether it would endure. She muses on examines her insecurities in this series of poems.

The Petrarchan Sonnet Form

The Petrarchan, also known as Italian, sonnet displays in an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. The octave features two quatrains (four lines), and the sestet contains two tercets (three lines).

The traditional rime scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is ABBAABBA in the octave and CDCDCD in the sestet. Sometimes poets will vary the sestet rime scheme from CDCDCD to CDECDE. Barrett Browning never veered from the rime scheme ABBAABBACDCDCD, which is a remarkable restriction imposed on herself for the duration of 44 sonnets.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Sectioning the sonnet into its quatrains and sestets is useful to the commentarian, whose job is to study the sections in order to elucidate meaning for readers unaccustomed to reading poems. The exact form of all of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 44 sonnets, nevertheless, consists of only one actual stanza; segmenting them is for commentarian purposes primarily.

A Passionate, Inspirational Love Story

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets begin with a marvelously fantastic open scope for discovery in the life of one who has a penchant for melancholy. One can imagine the change in environment and atmosphere from beginning with the somber thought that death may be one's only immediate consort and then gradually learning that, no, not death, but love is on one's horizon.

These 44 sonnets feature a journey to lasting love that the speaker is seeking—love that all sentient beings crave in their lives! Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s journey to accepting the love that Robert Browning offered remains one the most passionate and inspirational love stories of all time.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles