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Sunday, January 22, 2006

from Sonnets from the Portuguese

I THOUGHT ONCE HOW THEOCRITUS had sung
of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
who each one in a gracious hand appears
to bear a gift for mortals, old or young :
and, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw in gradual vision through my tears,
the sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
those of my own life, who by turns had flung
a shadow across me. Straightway I was 'ware,
so weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
behind me, and drew me backward by the hair ;
and a voice said in mastery, while I strove,
'Guess now who holds thee?' - 'Death,' I said. But there,
the silver answer rang - 'Not Death but Love.'

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

2 comments:

Lyle Daggett said...

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is one of the many poets whose work has suffered over time at the hands of the anthology industry. The first time I actually sat down and read all of the Sonnets from the Portuguese straight through, in sequence, I was stunned by their cumulative power, and the subtleties of the turns of feeling and image they took as they made their way through the sequence.

The "How do I love thee" sonnet, the one that shows up in most anthologies (and by now endlessly parodied in popular media) is the next-to-last poem in the full sequence, and has an amazing power when it's read in that context, coming as the climactic poem in the group.

Ann said...

You are right Lyle, just my reading of seven of those sonnets (are there more?), gives the one ("How do I love thee") such a different sensation than if read alone. It becomes a resounding decision after indecision and worry.

Sonnet ii /What hast thou to do / with looking at the lattice-lights at me, / a poor, tired, wandering singer, singing through / the dark, and leaning up a cherry tree? follows the one I introduced. The sounds are of condescension for her ability to love and adoration of the loved one. In the next sonnet, she immortalizes the love, admits to its being inseparable from her existence while at the same time, she says: "Go from me."

In sonnet iv she's becoming explanatory, human. "Am I cold," she asks, that she can not return the "high gifts" bestowed on her by her lover? "Not so, not cold - but very poor instead." She simply cannot reciprocate. For frequent tears have run / the colours from my life, and left so dead / and pale a stuff, it were not fitly done / to give the same as pillow to thy head. / Go farther! let it serve to trample on.

The warmth is there in sonnet v where she beseeches her love to "love for love's sake," not for appearance or some temporal whimsy. But she moves into the highest realm of the abstract with the next poem, speaking of angels which drop "a golden orb of perfect song / into our dear deep silence."

After having ascended and purposefully descended, become mortal, tested her lover and herself, now she reaches a crescendo of recognition, and pronounces in the (final) sonnet all the ways her love is expressed, from the reaches of heaven through the "quiet need, by sun and candlelight." She loves passionately, purely while subverting all the old griefs.

It is a journey of doubt and decision. Though I wish it were not so self effacing, and for all the beauty, I wish the sentiments of love on a pedestal, were more balanced.