An Analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “I think of thee!”

This post follows on from last week’s analysis of the form of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 29, “I think of thee!” It’s such a great poem because there’s just so much to say about it. All in fourteen sweet lines. It’s the A* candidate’s dream poem.

There will naturally be some overlap as Barrett Browning drew our attention with the rhythm of the poem to certain lines and so these will become a focus again for this week’s analysis.

The very first line presents us with a poem that is at once personal and intimate, addressed to “thee” – a person anonymous, but a person we know from her life to be her husband-to-be, Robert Browning. The “thee” is both intimate and yet becoming decidedly old-fashioned. We saw it in Byron’s poem “When We Two Parted”, though I think the nuances are a little different.

It’s the equivalent of the French “tu”, as discussed in the analysis of Byron’s poem. It’s singular, because it refers to one person. Here we’ve got Barrett Browning using the familiar “thee” just as Bryon did which suggests an intimacy and a knowledge, a familiarity. So why’s she using it here? Does it convey a closeness that “you” cannot? In David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, published in the same year, we find the word “thee” used only three times and “you” almost five thousand. The three times that it is used, it’s used to convey an intimate sentiment, an expression of love. That’s not to say it’s the same here. David Copperfield is one single text and there was no set fashion. It’s just to say that it’s becoming more and more unusual, so we are forced to consider why she has chosen it. Does it express a closeness and intimacy? Or is it more in keeping with her desire to keep the poems anonymous under the guise that they were a translation from Portuguese? It’s a choice she’s making that would have revealed something about their relationship and we might want to think about why she’s done that.

Like many of the other poems in “Love and Relationships”, it’s also written directly to the person. We know a lot more about the biographical details of the “Sonnets from the Portuguese” than we do for many of the other poems (and it does make me want to go around tippexing the internet and adding corrections when I see so-called expert teachers writing possible biographical details about some of the poems as if they are facts… but hey, you shouldn’t believe everything you read) so we know that she had written them for private viewing only, and her husband-to-be, eminent poet Robert Browning, thought them so good that he encouraged her to publish them. Thus they were meant privately, then went public and she did so under the guise of having translated them (thus, “from the Portuguese”) but it wasn’t a very cunning plan, since nobody fell for it. We get the sense though that we are very much reading something intended for the object of her affections. There’s no sense that she is writing in character or any lack of genuine sentiment.

We get many moments through the poem where we see that level of intimacy as she explains how easily her thoughts get out of control when she thinks of him, “my thoughts do twine and bud/About thee,” and how they’re like “wild vines” – these intimate confessions about how much she thinks of him. Having your thoughts and feelings laid bare in print like this, it’s no wonder Barrett Browning found it a bit personal. It’s kind of like someone getting hold of your diary. Well, not quite. She wrote them for him. But then none of us would like our love letters published, would we? It’s a bit cringe-worthy. I’d definitely feel uncomfortable if someone got hold of a love letter I’d written and published it. It’s not the same though – she has chosen to publish these. Still, the sense that these were not written for public consumption comes through in the way she describes her feelings.

One thing we need to understand about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s language is the religious diction she employs. Many of her poems are imbued with a sense of religious marvel. It’s a bit of a hangover from the Romantic poets with their feelings of awe and wonder upon seeing the greatness of nature, the fingerprints of God at work as they saw it. This feeling of the Sublime is not really what’s going on here, but Barrett Browning seems to paint a sense of wonder and enlightenment, an uplifting at the new joy she’s found in love. She plays with the conventions of poetry, too, in ways that we don’t see often except in the rule-breaking poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson who were writing much later than she was. No wonder she was such an acclaimed poet!

In the very first line of the poem, we have both the exclamation mark and the dash forming a caesura in the line. Well a half caesura. The exclamation mark stops us and the dash drives us on and connects us to the next bit. The exclamation mark shows her joy, her surprise perhaps. It’s one of three exclamation marks in the poem. That’s quite a lot of exclaiming for 14 lines. We don’t have to dig deep to see her emotions, which are kept in check by the neatness and restrictions of the sonnet form and the rhythm. The dash drives us onwards and connects us to the next bit. It’s functioning as a colon here, a springboard which drives us through into the next bit, and what follows is an embellishment of what comes before. From this ‘bud’ of a thought, “I think of thee!”, we’re then catapulted into another thirty-two words over four lines. It’s like the sentence itself grows just as the thoughts do.

Barrett Browning describes her thoughts “as wild vines” which grow up and around the image of him in her head. She sees him as the tree and her thoughts clinging to him and growing around him until they almost obscure him completely, “soon there’s nought to see/except the straggling green”. The verbs she uses are very organic, natural words that bring her thoughts to life. They cannot literally “twine and bud” or “put out broad leaves” but the metaphor extends throughout the poem to line eleven. Vines often grow quickly, as they do here, “soon” they cover the whole tree. The word “twine” is interesting in itself, suggesting how the thoughts are separate but merge and interlace as well as enveloping their subject. She says they “twine… about thee” and so we are given the idea that they encircle him and grow up around him. “Bud” is nice as well as it suggests growth and newness.

Her thoughts quickly grow out of control, however, and “put out broad leaves” which obscure him and hide him from her. She calls them “straggling green” at this point which suggests a certain unruliness, that they stray and meander, they ramble and wander.

As for her choice of tree to represent the object of her affections… “my palm-tree”. Of all the trees she could have chosen, she chooses a palm tree. Not an oak, with its suggestions of strength and might, of England and of things that grow immense from the tiniest of beginnings. Not an ash with its sense of sacrifice. A palm tree. That with the vines have a kind of exotic and unfamiliar feel. Ivy is a native of British soil, but the way she describes the “wild vines” and the “palm” has a very exotic quality – something unfamiliar, strange and unusual. The palm in itself is very in keeping with the religious diction. A palm for the Romans was a symbol of victory and triumph. A palm for the Christians was a symbol of faith and belief. We have Palm Sunday and Jesus’s early followers welcomed his return to Jerusalem by putting palm branches beneath the feet of the donkey he rode to show his victory. It’s his triumphal return to town. All that in mind, the palm is a tree showing triumph and victory, but a tree loaded with very religious meaning. They’re also a tree that grows in the desert: the date palm is a symbol of the oasis in the desert. This choice of tree leaves you with much you can say. Is it a sign of her dedication and faith? A sign that she feels her love has taken on the same level of devotion as if she were a believer in him (and compare that with Romeo and Juliet’s first conversation where he calls himself a ‘Holy Palmer’ and suggests his love has taken on the qualities of the kind of love we have when we truly believe in something, a pure love, a devotion, a form of worship, in fact. That would be VERY in keeping with early sonnets where the early sonnet writers professed a divine and sacred love bordering on worship of the ‘angel’ who walked on earth. Is it a sign of something she never thought would happen? Feelings of love growing in a life that had been devoid of love, a barren desert? After all, she was thirty-eight when she wrote these poems – and that’s some age to fall in love in Victorian times. Whatever you think of it, what does it suggest, this choice of a palm tree? It is certainly very exotic.

You can’t neglect, either, the times the palm is mentioned in the Bible. Perhaps the passage that Barrett Browning had in mind was from Song of Songs, a bit of the Bible celebrating all things… sexy. Yes, really. It starts with a woman’s longing for her lover. She asks him to meet with her. He teases her and says no. It’s also what’s known as a “garden poem” and she invites him into her garden (seriously, I’m not making this up) and invites him to sample her fruits. I promise you. This is not some old English teacher reading into things. It certainly makes Barrett Browning’s fellow poet Tennyson seem a bit bleak in Maud when she is told “Come into the garden, Maud”. The Song of Songs also has moments where she says this:

Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest
    is my beloved among the young men.
I delight to sit in his shade,
    and his fruit is sweet to my taste.

And Barrett Browning also compares her lover to a tree and wants to “breathe within” his “shadow”. See? Not so crazy now. There are definite echoes of Song of Songs in Sonnet XXIX, the saucy minx. At this point, I’d like to add a little aside. The man in Song of Songs compares HIS girlfriend’s hair to a flock of goats. Even Spenser’s sonnets didn’t make use of that crazy simile. It does have the most beautiful line of all: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” I think that’s just beautiful. So Sonnet XXIX isn’t as sexual or quite so fecund – this was the Victorian Age after all! – all that palm tree business could be quite literally an oasis in her desert.

In line 5, the tone becomes very forceful, “be it understood/I will not have my thoughts…”. Line 5 is unusual because it’s the volta, the turning point, some four lines earlier than we might expect. There’s a reversal of the natural order of things. The word, “yet” shows us that this is the turning point, the way she brings the uncontrolled growth of her thoughts to a stop.

We have a second caesura in line 7, with another exclamation mark that also brings us to a stop, and the forceful tone continues. In fact, what she has said is that she “will not” have her thoughts “instead” of her Robert Browning: they are not enough for her. She wants him, in the flesh, the real him, not just thoughts of him. She commands him to “renew thy presence” – come and see her maybe. There seems to be a really masculine forcefulness about what she asks him to do, with the adjective “strong” and the “rustling” of boughs, shaking off all of her thoughts and appearing as he really is – i.e. in the flesh. We’ve a second command in line ten, “let these bands of greenery… drop heavily down”. She’s telling him to shake off the thoughts that shroud him from her so she can see him in person. Oh, “rustle thy boughs” gets all manly and I don’t even want to get into the smut of “set thy trunk all bare”. Suffice to say it is very… fertile of the imagination and quite rampant with masculinity. I’m sure I’m not the only one to find something quite virile about her depiction of him. Virile AND religious. That is some word choice.

There’s a real sense that he changes everything for her; it’s a very disruptive force. There are lots of violent and forceful words that continue on from the “strong” and the commands that he “rustle” his “boughs”. Line 11 is the real change of pace and it’s like a liberation. The thoughts which are the “wild vines” which have “insphered” him are to “drop heavily down”. It’s a really striking, power-filled image. You wouldn’t imagine that leaves could drop “heavily”. There’s a real weight and intensity, a mass and solidity to these leaves, these thoughts, and then they would “burst”, again, a word with impact and intensity, power and force, and “shatter”. The line in itself is a change of pace: “DROP HEAVily DOWN – BURST – SHATTererd, EVerywhere.” The dactyl lends itself to a speed of pace. Tennyson uses it in Charge of the Light Brigade to convey the speed of the battle, and Browning uses it as well in The Lost Leader written in 1845. It changes the pace of this line and shifts us from the usual iambs to something a little different. That draws attention to this line as well. “Burst” is generally onomatopoeic with the voiced plosive, “b”. But we’ve got two other voiced plosives beginning words in this line, the “d” of “drop heavily down – burst” In fact, with the plosive sounds and the caesura and enjambement, you’ve got something that more resembles Heaney’s Follower than you do somehting that resembles any other poems in the anthology. The word “shattered” is interesting as well, with the build-up of the soft “sh” and the hard “t” making it semi-onomatopoeic. There’s a real movement and sense of motion in this line, coupled with the noisiness of it, all intensifying the effect of that “burst”. Not only that, but we’ve got more caesura, this time the dash again, and then the finish with the exclamation mark; it’s definitely the vocal and aural pinnacle of this poem.

We move then into the final section of the poem. We don’t really have the volta or sonnet about-face here, but we have a kind of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. She poses an idea… her thoughts are growing wild and in fact disturbing her vision of him. Then she presents the antithesis – that he should shake off her thoughts. Finally, it ends with the “Because” and a form of synthesis at the end.

He refreshes her, to see him, to hear him, he is like “a new air”. From the thoughts of him which have obstructed her from seeing him for himself, she commands him to “renew” his presence, shake off her thoughts and come to see her, stopping the thoughts in their tracks: she won’t need to think of him anymore because he’ll be there in front of her.

It compares well in some ways with When We Two Parted because they’re both about love in absence, and they’re from a similar time period. In other ways, they have few similarities: here is a woman overjoyed by her love, a woman whose poem barely restricts or contains her idea, whose poetry almost seems to escape from the page with the bursting and the shattering and the whole, wonderful “LIFE” in it. It’s a living, growing thing in itself. For me, it’s an exuberant poem, joyful, enthusiastic, vital and full of emotion, unlike Byron’s which is full of bitterness.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about AQA GCSE English Literature poetryplease 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.

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3 thoughts on “An Analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “I think of thee!”

  1. This is a beautiful analysis of such a poem, as well as something useful for revision. Thank you so much for posting this, it’s amazing!

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