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The Analysis of Love in Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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The Analysis of Love in Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning essay

William Wordsworth once described poetry as being “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…”(1). He could not have described Barrett’s Sonnet 43 more succinctly, in spite of the fact that he preceded her by half a century. Barrett wrote 44 sonnets about her love for her fellow contemporary poet and later husband, Robert Browning, a series which she titled “Sonnets from the Portuguese”. Critics’ opinions vary on this matter, but most agree that her choice is a reference to one of her earlier compositions about the love between a young girl and Camoens (2), a Portuguese poet of the 1500’s. Others believe that the title is a private joke between Barrett and Browning, as the latter was fond of calling her his little “Portugee” (3). For purposes of this essay, we shall assume that the sonnet is written in homage to her beloved Browning. In any case, Sonnet 43 comes towards the end of the series, and as such inevitably possesses a climactic appeal when read in context with the other sonnets. This essay will briefly discuss the genre and other technicalities of this particular poem, before analysing it in more detail to determine its impact and effect up on the reader.

As we have already briefly mentioned above, “How do I love thee?” is a sonnet, a 14 lined poem with a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA CD CD CD in the style favoured by Petrarch. In it the composer has utilised iambic pentameter (there are five iambs, or two-beat feet of unstressed-stressed syllables per line), which adds to the musical quality of the piece. Sonnets originated in Sicily in the 13th Century – the English name is derived from the Italian ‘sonetto’ meaning ‘little song’ (4) – and were often accompanied by the lute, recalling a serenade or perhaps the courtly love ballads of the Middle Ages. It is evident from the outset of the poem then that love will most likely play a role in this particular genre of poetry, as it does in this instance.

Petrachan sonnets differ from other poems of the same genre in their formal structure. In the first eight lines, or octave, we are presented with the theme of the piece: Love. Then we have a volta, or twist, followed by the last six lines (or sestet) which develop the theme further. In Sonnet 43, Barrett raises this style to another level. In the octave, she describes the loftiness of her love in abstract, spiritual terms, drawing parallels between her intense love and religious or political fervour; in the sestet she includes her feelings of grief and the loss of innocence, giving her love a more realistic stance. She uses a constative (5) speech act, where she is describing her love in a relatively calm, logical – and even philosophical – manner. The fulfillment of the speech act “consists in its recognition” (6) as is clearly illustrated in this case.

Yet the poem still successfully has the impact of being a passionate declaration of love, convincing us that this love is not a passing fancy but real and everlasting. Let us examine the poem in more depth. She begins with a question –

“How do I love thee?”(l.1)

Is this a rhetorical question? Barrett desires the reader to ponder the question in anticipation of what is to follow. There are so many ways in which the speaker loves the object of her affections that she feels the need to count and list them one by one, using anaphora with her repeated phrase ‘I love thee…’:

“I love thee to the depth and breadth of height…”(l.2)

Here we have not only internal rhyme (depth, breadth), but also a sort of paradox: she is using abstract analogies to describe her love as being three-dimensional and therefore very much a part of the real world. Her love extends to the limits of the physical world. There is also an element of intertexuality, as this could also be a reference to an Epistle of St Paul to the Ephesians, where the Apostle desires to understand “the length, breadth, depth and height of Christ’s and the fullness of God” (7). This links directly to the idea of her love as a spiritual thing, as she reiterates in the next line, with the mention of her soul:

“My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight…” (l.3)

This line suggests that this love is a part of her very being, pertaining to her body and soul. Barrett was very religious, and as such this would have held more meaning for her than someone less inclined towards such beliefs. For her, this love had become the very core of her being, the meaning behind her existence. Resulting from the extensive use of ‘th’, these lines also introduce soft, ‘breathy’ syllables into the sonnet, reminiscent of the act of living. There are also elements of assonance in these lines, with the words ‘feeling’, ‘Being’ and ‘ideal’, which helps the poem return to a livelier expression lest perhaps it lapse away into faint breaths and sighs. In this line: “For the ends of Being and ideal Grace” (l.4), we can assume that she is referring to God, the Beginning and End of all things. With this in mind, she is comparing her love for Browning to her love for God, elevating it to something which is out of this world. She brings it back into our spectrum with the words ““I love thee to the level of every day’s/ Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight” (l.5-6), suggesting that her love is one of the bare necessities of life, as necessary as air, food, water or shelter. But she still chooses this ‘necessity’ of her own free will (“I love thee freely, as men strive for Right” (l.7)). This may also be another reference to God, echoing the Christian belief in loving possessing a free-will in loving God and doing what is right in order to achieve perfect happiness.

Similarly, in the next line, describes her love as being “pure”, for she does not desire any “praise” for her action. Then we have the volta, where her tone changes: she starts to describe her love as a passion that hurts, the passion that she has in old griefs and childhood days. She loves him with a love she seemed to lose with her childhood innocence, or “lost saints” – it is as though she loves him in the same way one loves when one is young, with her whole being, entirely and guilelessly the blind faith of a child, “without a doubt because of a lack of life experience that would go contrary to it” (8). Her last lines are sentimental, echoing the intensity of this love:

“I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.” (l.12-14)

This may seem to some critics to be a gross hyperbole, but when one keeps in mind the religious nature of the speaker, and the poet’s belief that there is a life after death, it takes on a timeless, romantic significance. We can comprehend the emotional complexity and maturity of the speaker’s character and feel uplifted by the intensity of the pure love which she describes so much so that it is far more effective and creates a greater impact than any modern love song.

Footnotes:

(1) W. Wordsworth and S. Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical ballads, with other poems : in two volumes, Biggs and Co. Bristol, London : 1800, Preface.

(2) Anonymous, “ARTS1030 Introduction to English: Literary Genres” , UNSW, Sydney, 2010, p24.

(3) Anonymous, “Sonnet 43 – A Love Poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning”, Cummings Study Guides, Internet, World Wide Web http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/Guides2/Sonnet43.html (31/03/10)

(4) Ibid.

(5) J. L. Austin, How to do things with words, Oxford: Oxford Uni Press (1912?)

(6) M. Devitt & R. Harley, Blackwell’s Guide to the Philosophy of Language, (2003)

(7) Anonymous, “What is the analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 43?”, Answers.com, Internet, World Wide Web http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_analysis_of_Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning’s_sonnet_43 (31/03/10)

(8) Jules P. Life, “How do I Love Thee- Elizabeth Barrett Browning”, Living Life with a Passion, p5, Internet, World Wide Web http://juleslife.wordpress.com/2007/06/08/how-do-i-love-thee-elizabeth-barrett-browning/ (31/03/10)

READING LIST

– Anonymous, “ARTS1030 Introduction to English: Literary Genres” , UNSW, Sydney, 2010

– Anonymous, “Sonnet 43 – A Love Poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning”, Cummings Study Guides, Internet, World Wide Web http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/Guides2/Sonnet43.html

– Anonymous, “What is the analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 43?”, Answers.com, Internet, World Wide Web http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_analysis_of_Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning’s_sonnet_43

– Austin, JL, How to do things with words, Oxford: Oxford Uni Press (1912?)

– Devitt, M & Harley, R, Blackwell’s Guide to the Philosophy of Language, (2003)

– Life, JP, “How do I Love Thee- Elizabeth Barrett Browning”, Living Life with a Passion, p5, Internet, World Wide Web http://juleslife.wordpress.com/2007/06/08/how-do-i-love-thee-elizabeth-barrett-browning/

– Wordsworth, W and Taylor Coleridge, S, Lyrical ballads, with other poems : in two volumes, Biggs and Co. Bristol, London : 1800, Preface.

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