Edition: Sonnets from the Portuguese
Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett's correspondence began with Elizabeth's critical praise of one of Browning's poems. Browning reciprocated with a letter returning his compliments about her work--and boldly proclaiming that he loved her. Perhaps because Elizabeth at the time was six years Browning's senior (at 40) and physically weak due to a chronic condition, she was hesitant during their courtship years. Sonnets from the Portuguese was written during the years of their courtship, from 1845-1846. She did not, however, present Browning with these sonnets until 1849, after their marriage and their son was born. Sonnets from the Portuguese was published in November of 1850, after Elizabeth Barrett Browning was up for the Poet Laureate alongside Tennyson.
"Portuguese" was a pet name for Elizabeth, though the name's use in the title was also a way to dampen the sense of personal intimacy of the sonnets since it suggests they may be sonnets in translation.
Many of the sonnets pair death and love, seemingly signaling the sense of an individual's "death" when becoming joined with another. The very first sonnet dramatizes the closeness between the two by staging Barrett's confusion: she is pulled back by her 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." In Sonnet 3, "Death must dig the level where these agree," referring to the agreement between two unlike individuals; in Sonnet 18, she thought that "the funeral shears / Would take this first" (referring to her lock of hair) "but Love is justified,--/Take it thou." Sometimes the link between death and love is less about their equivalency, as in Sonnet 23, in which she wonders if union in love means that her lover too would lose some of his life if she should die.
The presence of God weaves through the sonnets as a part of their relationship. This presence usually serves to validate their love, as in Sonnet 2, where "only three in all God's universe / Have heard this word thou hast said," meaning themselves plus God. The most famous sonnet--"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"--actually ends with a conditional interruption from God: "I love thee with the breath, / Smiles, tears, of all my life! -- and, if God choose, / I shall love thee better after death." In other sonnets, God is paired with Robert, and this works with the closeness of love and death as well since love takes her to Robert and death to God. In sonnet 42, she describes herself turning to "the white throne of God," but "instead, saw thee, not unallied / To angels in thy soul."
The sonnets repeatedly figure love as a struggle which necessarily involves some sort of mutual violation. As Isobel Armstrong has pointed out, there is a recurrence of door and threshold images, barriers which are violated by love. Sonnet 4 dramatizes how their personal "songs" or music (acknowledging the essence of both of them as poets) cross such barriers:
And dost thou lift this house's latch too poor
For hand of thine? and canst thou think and bear
To let thy music drop here unaware
In folds of golden fulness at my door?
These lines begin with the question as to whether he would enter into her house, but then the rest of the lines stress that it is a mutual violation. He must "think and bear" to let his music "drop here unaware" as if his music will be caught unknowingly at her door. Sonnet 29 shows a different figuration of struggle and violation: her thoughts twine around him (he is a tree) nearly until he has disappeared under her leaves. This becomes problematic, however, because she can no longer see him--"I am too near thee," she writes. Thus, she tells him "Rather, instantly, / Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should." This image shows a process of mutual struggle where as she twines him with leaves and vines, he must always struggle even if to "burst, shatter" them away.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnets stage over and over a kind of willful abjection, a term I've chosen because it contains contradiction. Armstrong writes how "Sonnets from the Portuguese is about idolatry, dependency, the temptation to disappear before the object of adulation." Yet, such a disappearance isn't purely abjection, the language struggles to "dissolve categories" like the "master-slave" category and "attempt[s] to coalesce into new forms." The wish to idolize her lover is often matched with a reluctance and then a desire which overcomes this reluctance: Sonnet 6 reads--"Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand / Henceforward in thy shadow."In Sonnet 8 she calls his giving an "unexpected largesse" and her own "very poor," and ends the poem with lines that ask her lover to "Go farther" than to take her as a pillow for his head but "let it serve to trample on." Though abjection, the willful is contained in the strong command in the imperative "Go farther." In a similar formulation, sonnet 17 asks how he will "have me for most use," gives some possibilities, and then ends with the imposing one-word imperative, "Choose." Finally, sonnet 16 provides one of the clearest phrases signaling this yoking together of abjection and willfulness: "Conquering / May prove as lordly and complete a thing / In lifting upward, as in crushing low," explaining that love raises, while also conquering much in the same way as crushing low.