Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

9:56 AM



If you asked me to recommend a book of poetry, I’d recommend Sonnets from thePortuguese. Many times, poetry can be unintelligible and difficult to tackle – Sonnets from the Portuguese is neither.

They are written in a direct way which makes them easy to understand. They are about love, which is relatable. 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote these poems to her husband, the also poet, Robert Browning. The title has a double explanation. Elizabeth was dark complexioned so her husband used to call her “my Portuguese”. It is also a reference to the 16th century Portuguese poet Camoens and his love Catherine.

You can read the poems as a documentation of her relationship with Robert Browning, but we can’t forget that they are poems written by a poet to another poet. So there’s a lot of richness in them also.

The first poem is to me one of the most interesting and sets the tone for the whole series. She is old and had been sick and bed-ridden for many years. While contemplating her "sweet, sad years", a mystic Shape pulls her by the hair and asks: "'Guess now who holds thee?' - 'Death,' I said. But, there,/ The silver answer rang, - 'Not Death, but Love.'" 

Isn't it interesting how she presents love as a source of rejuvenation and life? 

I said the other day Elizabeth was my new hero. Unlike so many writers who tend to focus on the negative in their lives, she brings her "melancholy years" to light only as a comparison to the happiness Robert Browning brought her.

The poems show both Robert and herself were an active part in her happiness. Her life was saved not only because of him, but because she loved him back. Imagine how easy it would be for a sick 40-year-old woman to simply dismiss him because he is a handsome 6 year-younger poet and her father didn’t approve of the marriage.

While reading the poems I was amazed at how she could be both physically fragile and interiorly strong.

When Elizabeth gave her husband the sonnets he said it was the best thing after Shakespeare’s sonnets. Robert was a poet himself so, if that compliment is not love I don’t know what is.

What do you think of the Brownings' story?

Image via The Omniscient Mussel

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