Grandmother of the Confessional Poets: Sonnet IX

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Can it be right to give what I can give?
To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears
As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years
Re-sighing on my lips renunciative
Through those infrequent smiles which fail to live
For all thy adjurations? O my fears,
That this can scarce be right! We are not peers,
So to be lovers; and I own, and grieve,
That givers of such gifts as mine are, must
Be counted with the ungenerous. Out, alas!
I will not soil thy purple with my dust,
Nor breathe my poison on thy Venice-glass,
Nor give thee any love --- which were unjust.
Belov├Ęd, I love only thee! let it pass.

One could probably make a case for Elizabeth Barrett Browning being the ancestor of the 20th Century confessional poets.  It's true that poetry has often been the most intimate of the arts and self-revelation--or concealment within apparent revelation has been a common element.  But in poems like these we hear such obvious details of the emotional trial and battle that ring out of the personal and autobiographical.  More, we have intimate details of what is probably the very real psychology of Mrs. Browning's approach to life, "That givers of such gifts as mine are, must//Be counted with the ungenerous."  Modern self-help lingo would tell us that we have here a crisis of self-esteem.  But then it rolls over into hyperbole that is so overblown that out of context it would be ludicrous.  But with the surroundings such statements as "I will not soil thy purple with my dust" and "Nor breathe my poison on they Venice-glass," result in a portrait of a woman terribly afraid of rejection even as she knows she has been accepted.

But we miss something if we do not take the time to examine that last image carefully because it echoes a theme from sonnet V.  It was widely thought in the Middle ages that drinking glasses (commonly made in Venice) would shatter if poison were put into them.  So Mrs. Browning is here concerned not only with her own unworthiness but with the possible effects of that unworthiness on the one that she loves--it isn't merely making unfit ("soil thy purple with my dust"), but it is potentially destructive and deadly.  And so, Mrs. Browning prophetically proceeds the Tuff Darts in declaring, "My love is like nuclear waste."  And so, the natural concomitant of that is that because I love you I cannot give you any love because it would destroy you.

Once again we see that surface simplicity belies a delicate and sinewy complexity that rewards close reading with paradoxes and a depth greater than that often experienced amongst the confessional poets.


  1. Thanks for this respectful meditation on a poet who's often dismissed.

    As someone whose work is not confessional(except I confess I like people to read it), I also want to add that I can never see any of EBB's love poems without remembering that she also made a major effort to oppose the horrors of child labor with "The Cry of the Children."

    This was a complex and serious writer.

  2. Dear Shelley,

    Thanks for commenting--and having long been in the ranks of those who too-easily dismissed Mrs. Browning, I have felt the urge to make amends, and in whatever small way I can introduce others to her work. I'm glad you're enjoying it.




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