Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a Victorian poet, incredibly successful and celebrated in her time, both by the public and literary critics – she was the one other female poets were measured against. Perhaps her most famous and enduring collection is Sonnets from the Portugese, which was a collection of love poems written to Robert Browning – the one who wrote Porphyria’s Lover. They were in love at a distance for a long time, partly because her family disapproved of the relationship (she was disinherited following her marriage) and partly because she was quite an invalid, suffering from severe illness that left her bed-bound and in extreme pain. The collection was originally a privately written series of love letters that she didn’t intend to publish, but Browning persuaded her. “The Portugese” was his nickname for her, in part because she had a slightly darker skin-tone and short dark, tightly curled hair. Although she wrote a lot of political poetry – criticising conditions of working life, religious hypocrisy and so on – it is her love poetry which endures, perhaps because of its more universal themes.
The poem appears to be a response to a letter from a lover as the exclamation “I think of thee!” at the beginning seems to be a shocked, maybe even upset, response to something, maybe an accusation or question that she isn’t thinking of him enough. The rest of the poem is her describing the way that she thinks about him all the time. By the final lines, she’s come to the conclusion that when he’s near her she can’t think at all for longing. It’s a very physical poem, perhaps surprisingly so if your impression of Victorian women is all corsets and fainting at the hint of a table leg, but remember this was a private sonnet – and Barrett Browning was a relatively outspoken woman for her time. Yet still, expressing such passionate love was considered risqué, a little shocking, maybe even scandalous.
Barrett Browning writes in the sonnet form – 14 lines or iambic pentameter, and uses a specific rhyme scheme. While writing about form is essential for the top level marks, it must be applied to meaning. The sonnet is traditionally a love poem, which suits the purpose of the poem’s origins. It was also, at the time, slightly outdated and a little out of fashion, but again this was not originally intended for publication, so the private and personal nature of it perhaps suggests that the sonnet is used because it is more traditional, a suggestion that Barrett Browning’s love for Robert is more timeless and enduring. The sonnet also is quite tricky to write in some respects, and provides an intellectual challenge for a poet – many poets use traditional forms because they challenge the writer to work harder on their artistry and technique. Finally, the sonnet series also has a strong legacy of romantic communication – Shakespeare’s sonnets are the major example, written to communicate love to specific individuals rather than a generally published poem for public consumption. So, the sonnet has a long romantic tradition that heightens Barrett Browning’s declarations of love.
After the initial breathless exclamation with its caesura of disbelief or surprise, the dash pulls us into the series of short clauses, keeping up a pace that suggests her passion. The natural imagery Barrett Browning uses is interesting; the vine around the tree could suggest a symbiotic relationship, two people reliant on one another and so intertwined (the leaves) it’s hard to tell one from the other. But there’s also a sense of underlying threat, that she fears the relationship is suffocating as the vine “hides the wood” of the tree completely – is this suffocation or protection? It’s easy to believe that someone as ill as Browning would also feel herself a burden to those around her, especially when she’s unable to fulfil a conventional relationship perhaps. Alternatively, the vines-thoughts can be interpreted as her thoughts obscuring the reality of him (the wood, the tree), making it difficult to see him as he really is; this is further referenced in the “insphere thee” towards the end, where the suggestion is that the vines are clinging too hard and must be shaken off. The thoughts “do twine and bud” though, bringing new life – new hope and love. In simple English, she can’t stop thinking about him.
From line 5, she’s insistent that she would rather have him than only thoughts of him. This functions as the volta of this poem, earlier than traditional in a sonnet, maybe indicating the strength of her passion, that she’s too intense to wait until the proper time – things beginning to heat up a little! It’s also quite forceful, “be it understood” leaves no room for discussion – she will have him physically rather than in thought. The “palm tree” might sound like a strange choice – why not an oak, strong and protective, for example? There’s maybe some religious connotations here, an allusion to palm trees in Bible stories where they’re often associated with worship and is a symbol of faith. It’s also slightly exotic and strange, creating a frisson of excitement in her romance. It could be that she is positioning him as an oasis, a thought of relief in a desert of illness and loneliness.
Barrett Browning insists the reality of him is “dearer, better!” with the exclamative highlighting her passion, as well as the archaic “who art”, fitting the tone of the sonnet form. Archaic language is often also used to express deeper, enduring love, creating it into something as old and valued as the language describing it. There’s a further development at line 7 where she asks him to “instantly/renew thy presence”, the “renew” harking back to the “budding” thoughts she’s had, the sense of growth. And it’s another forceful instruction – “renew thy presence”, come and see me as soon as possible, as a “strong tree” or passionate lover should. Then there’s the additional eroticism of the “trunk all bare”, with the weight of the greenery as it “drop[s] heavily down”, unusual perhaps in the description of leaves (heavy doesn’t usually spring to mind) but creates a more physical image again.
There’s a remarkable physicality to the passionate second half; the language is all of the strong emotions and actions experienced: “trunk all bare,” “burst, shattered, everywhere!”, “breathe within thy shadow”, “deep joy”. From “rather” to “everywhere!” is a progressively faster, more passionate series of clauses. The triadic structure “burst, shattered, everywhere!” builds to this final destruction of the vine-thoughts, but does so almost violently with the plosive sounds and caesura adding to a fragmented sound which might sound like it would contrast with a love poem, but this is a love poem about passion.
The “deep joy” is experienced physically, in her breath, her sight, her hearing. By the end, she can’t think of him at all – her thoughts all vanish because he is, finally, a “new air”, physically with her. The final “I am too near thee” is a neat place to compare structure with the opening line; then, all she could do is think of him – now his physical presence overwhelms her thoughts entirely.
In its use of natural imagery, Winter Swans is a great comparison, and has the added bonus of being a contrast in time, and in the stages of the relationship. Love’s Philosophy works beautifully here too, with its persuasive use of natural imagery and the emphasis on the physicality of love.
For something more challenging, perhaps turn to Follower, which emphasises the physicality of the loved one, in that case the speaker’s father. Perhaps most challenging (though in some ways interesting!) would be Porphyria;s Lover, of course written by Browning, the other partner in this relationship, comparing their use of lovers’ arrivals, maybe, and the impact of separation on love
|Key terms:||Can you answer?|
|· How does Browning use natural imagery to portray the relationship between the two?
· What impression of masculinity does she create through her use of metaphor?
· How does Browning express the intensity of her love?
· Why does Browning use tI’mhe sonnet form for her poem?
Like this? I’ve created a set of revision flashcards for the GCSE poetry anthology. Each one has
- language, structure and form explained
- context of the poem and why it matters
- key quotes, with analysis of language techniques
- key relevant literary terminology
- explanation of key quotations
- which poems to compare together