Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 29 from “Sonnets from the Portuguese” is one of the AQA GCSE English Literature poems from “Love and Relationships” and it presents us with a great form to analyse (something that candidates must talk about to get higher grades) It is, however, important to talk about the form as well as the metre, the rhythm and the stresses on particular words, as they lend so much to the poem.
These little poems of 14 lines are instantly recognisable. In fact, many people unfamiliar with poems will look and count the lines and check if things are sonnets or not. Sonnets are most popular as love poems. There are a few in the Love and Relationships section looking at love. From Petrach to Spenser, Wyatt and Sidney to Shakespeare and then to Elizabeth Barratt Browning, the sonnet was a love thing. That’s what will fox some people. A sonnet isn’t always to do with love. They became known in England as a thing to do with love, but they aren’t always. Shakespeare, among others, is responsible for this. When Romeo and Juliet first meet, their words form a sonnet. Spenser, Wyatt and others are mainly responsible for our views about the connection between love and sonnets. Barrett Browning doesn’t break from this tradition with her poem.
If you do anything before studying Sonnet 29, have a look at some of the Elizabethan sonnets that inspired the Sonnet Frenzy.
This is Spenser’s sonnet IX. I’m not convinced he’s sincere about just how sparkly his lover’s eyes are, but even so, we have a key example of what sonnets do – take the idea of love and explore a central idea or image within it.
Read this one by Sir Philip Sydney
When you look at Elizabethan Sonnets like this one of Spenser in which he says his girlfriend’s eyes are more dazzling than the sun, the moon, the stars, diamonds, crystals and glass. Of course they are!) you’ll see that these poems show how the sonnet was used to compare women to angels, ask women to release men from their torture; and, by the time of Shakespeare, you can see him playing around and mocking these ‘false sentiments’ which said women had eyes like the sun or walked like an angel.
So what do sonnets do?
They take the crazy, overwhelming, nonsensical thoughts in your head that swim around causing all manner of distraction, and they pen them into a nice, mathematical, rhythmic, structured shape. Imagine thoughts as a field full of hundreds of cats. A sonnet takes those crazy cats and puts them in a tidy, organised, neat little pen. No craziness. No distraction.
Not only that, sonnets are really hard to write. First you need a rhyme scheme . So you need to find words that make sense and rhyme too. Always hard. Then you need to make sure you express it in a regular amount of syllables – often 10. So you have to make all the other words fit in 14 10-syllable lines that rhyme. Then you have to think of the stresses so that words go dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM.
A sonnet concentrates your focus, marshalling, shaping and guiding your thoughts. They make it reflective, give it shape and pin it down. They take transient thoughts and bring them all together and force you to give it shape and form. And that’s what all sonnets have in common – whether they’re about love or anything else. They allow you to take something crazy like an emotion or a concept or an idea and give it a neat shape.
So Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s choice of form for her poem is very interesting. Sonnets as love poems had been out of fashion for a time, and she’d written them for her husband-to-be, poet Robert Browning. When he read them, he thought they were so good that he insisted she publish. She thought them a little personal, so she pretended they were a translation, calling them “Sonnets from the Portuguese” as if they were translations. That information gives us a little bit of information about the personal tone of the poem, a question that has been raised in many of the Anthology poems that are addressed to an individual and read more like a confessional or warts-and-all monologue from the writer to their lover, the things that they could never say. We can read this poem as private and personal, knowing that she did not intend when she wrote it that the poem would be published at all. Choosing the sonnet form is part of that romantic, personal, intimate tone – and it seems to me that Barrett Browning, more than any of the male sonnet writers three hundred years earlier, has chosen the sonnet form for its ability to marshall and shape what is unfathomable and uncontrollable. It feels to me that the feelings of the poet ‘break out’ from the restrictions of the form at many points – like she’s trying to put them in a tidy box and they just keep popping out. I’ll explain why I think that as I go through, but the emotions seem to billow out and are just about constrained by the poem itself.
The first point about the sonnet form with this poem is that it provides a neat little box to put her feelings in. It’s a studied meditation on her feelings. Well. It’s kind of a neat little box, with poppings-out everywhere. It starts off with a ten-syllable line in a very measured way for the first five lines, then it has an eleven-syllable line that pops out of the regular, before reverting to another two that are ten, and then it has a twelve-syllable line, two elevens, a ten and then an eleven. If the syllabic count of each line tells us anything it is that she is finding it harder and harder to bind her thoughts precisely to the form she started with. Compare it with her famous Sonnet 43, “How do I love thee?” which only has one line that doesn’t conform and you can see that she has a lot of problems making this one be as restrained. The words and sentiments seem to “grow” beyond the poem.
In terms of rhyme, it’s more of an Italian Petrarchan sonnet than it is a typically English sonnet in the style of Spenser and Shakespeare. I don’t have any good reasons why she’s chosen the scheme of the courtly lovers rather than her English poetic forefathers. Traditionally, the Italian poem was split into an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (the final six) with a turning point from the 8th line into the 9th, but this doesn’t happen in the ways you’d expect- in fact in Sonnet 29 as in other sonnets in her repertoire, the sense from line 8 carries on into line 9. It’s her personal stamp on a traditional style, breaking from convention just as the line lengths do too.
When we look at the metre of the poem, compared to other poems of hers, we find that this one finds it more difficult to restrict itself to iambic pentameter, the traditional metre of sonnets. More of the poppings-out. Iambic pentameter becomes the regular rhythm for a sonnet. You’ll find this often in Shakespeare: “my MISS/tress EYES/ are NOTH/ing LIKE/ the SUN/” and you even find it in Barrett Browning’s own poems “I LOVE/ thee WITH/ a LOVE/ I SEEMED/ to LOSE/” where the rhythm is split into five blocks with a stress on the last block “de-DUM”
Sonnet 29 starts like this. “I THINK/ of THEE!/ – my THOUGHTS/ do TWINE/ and BUD/” but then immediately breaks down in the next line, “aBOUT/ thee, as/ WILD VINES/ aBOUT/ a TREE/” – that’s I guess where I would read the stresses naturally. I had a little trouble on the WILD VINES or wild vines or WILD vines or wild VINES but any way you cut and slice it, it’s not the same iambic pentameter. When you scan the poem, you can see that a lot of it is roughly or exactly iambic pentameter – even the tricky line 2 can be read with a stress on “thee AS/ wild VINES” without much issue. Line 7 is also tricky because of the extra syllable but once you get past that eleventh syllable and don’t stress “who” the rest of it scans easily: “who art DEAR/er, BETT/er! RATH/er IN/stant/LY”.
In fact, it’s that line 9 that gets particularly interesting, because I don’t like reading “rustle thy boughs” as “rustLE/ thy BOUGHS” but as “RUSTle/ thy BOUGHS” – a trochee followed by an iamb which is a bit unusual. It’s shaking up the rhythm at the same time as it’s saying “rustle thy boughs” – I think that’s very interesting and worthy of comment. It introduces a bit of a shake-up and a bit of a change of rhythm on the volta line and at the precise moment she introduces a bit of movement with the words too. It uses those three things together to add a bit of emphasis to those words, which I’ll come back to when I start to explore the language and diction. That’s the whole point of these differences and changes: they draw attention to particular words, lines or phrases for deeper exploration. Line 7, 10 – 12 and 14 are the ones with interesting syllabic irregularities, and line 9, with its “Rustle thy boughs” has a kind of disrupted rhythm which is also interesting. But it’s line 11 that has a very interesting rhythm indeed…
drop HEAVily down – burst /SHATTered/ EVerywhere
I worked backwards with this line since “shattered” and “everywhere” seemed to be metric feet with three syllables in them (or even four depending on how you say “everywhere” – and it doesn’t have to have either 11 or 12 syllables to the line particularly, so that leaves it to you to decide) It sounds weird to read it any other way
drop HEAV/ iLY/ down – BURST /shattERED/ evER/ryWHERE/
That’s an iambic hexameter. It sounds weird. If you read it like this, you’d sound weird too. “Shattered everywhere” are the hardest words to get to “scan” in any particular way other than “SHATTered/ EVerywhere” – a trochee followed by a dactyl. You don’t need to know the weird names for all these syllables suffice to say that they are odd and they don’t scan easily. I love this bit. She says “shattered everywhere” and that is precisely what has happened to the rhythm. The disrupted rhythm adds something unusual to this line which means it’s worthy of exploration and focus when we come to the language.
The rhythm is off in the next line too, with
beCAUSE in this DEEP JOY to SEE and HEAR thee
The extra syllable here makes the rhythm wobble too.
Finally, the rhythm is also off in the last part of the final line:
I am too near thee.
I can’t decide to stress “am” “too” or “near” and just like Byron’s poem, the meaning is a little different depending on the stress. If I stress “too”, it sounds uncomfortable, like she is “TOO near” – too much. That makes me want to stress “am” and “near” and not stress “too” at all, but I don’t like the way it finishes on an unstressed syllable – it feels kind of like it trails off a bit and I think “thee” should be stressed, since it’s the subject of her poem. Then that makes me wants to stress all three last syllables “I am TOO NEAR THEE”
Again, whatever you do with the scansion of these lines, they are not easy to decide on and throw you a little off-balance. I think they’re three separate feet, a bit like Tennyson’s poem, “BREAK/BREAK/BREAK” Whatever is going on, there’s something unusual about these final words that need consideration.
All the form stuff (kind of) aside, it’s then easier to look at the language and images, as well as the tone of the poem. Since there is so much to think about in this poem, you’ll find a continuation of my analysis next week, exploring language, ideas and tone.
If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about AQA GCSE English Literature poetry, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.