Sonnet II

These are too lovely to gloss once and leave be.  And they're short so they are easily read, more easily skipped.  But each is worth the time it takes to read and reread a short poem in a day.

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning


But only three in all God's universe
Have heard this word thou hast said,---Himself, beside
Thee speaking, and me listening! and replied
One of us . . . that was God, . . . and laid the curse
So darkly on my eyelids, as to amerce
My sight from seeing thee,---that if I had died,
The deathweights, placed there, would have signified
Less absolute exclusion. 'Nay' is worse
From God than from all others, O my friend!
Men could not part us with their worldly jars,
Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend;
Our hands would touch for all the mountain-bars:
And, heaven being rolled between us at the end,
We should but vow the faster for the stars.

Read after the first, and in dialogue with it, Mrs. Browning continues the thought that began there when she discovered that she was caught up by love, not death.  The harbinger of this is Robert himself--so we seem to have three, and it is an ambiguous three, but Himself is in all likelihood a reference to God, "beside thee speaking" is Robert who has demanded in the previous poem, "Guess now who holds thee," and Elizabeth.  And one of those three--though it does not say which one, says that the act itself, love holding one in thrall "that was God."  And this seeming blasphemy, this inconceivable thought is so unbearable, so utterly out of all her previous experience that it shuts her off from everything more thoroughly than pennies on a dead woman's eyes "the deathweights placed there, would have signified less absolute exclusion".  And this traces the real experience.  Of the many, many love letters that Robert wrote to Elizabeth, the first, in which he declares his love for her is the only one missing.  One can conjecture--and perhaps biographies bear this out, that the sentiments expressed in the letter were so unthinkable, so like a mockery and a trial, that Elizabeth destroyed the letter. 

A no from God is worse than from all others because if mere human agency should strive to prevent that they should come together, there is much that could be done by mere human agency to avert that end.  But God's nay. . . well, perhaps even that is not insurmountable after all, for "heaven being rolled between us at the end//we should but vow the faster for the stars."  We would need to go beyond heaven to reach the conclusion we desire.  We might vow faster for the stars; however, God, should he choose to do so could still exclude.  It is the uncertain, trembling sort of end that makes the poem so powerful.  We would struggle to our last, but God still has the final say, and we might make our vows and plight our troth, but it is still God who establishes it or washes it away.

Close reading of these poems reveals much about the two (Elizabeth and Robert) and perhaps even more about the world in which we live.  The poems are so intensely personal, so soul-plumbing and so depth-defying, that they become universal.  It is an interesting example of the universal within the personal--meaning arising strictly out of our own experience.

I don't know if I will continue this series, but even if I do not--you all would do well to take up the book yourself and read how interrelated, intertwined, and complex the layering of this series is.  As Robert himself so aptly put it in the letter excerpted yesterday, "Yes, that was a strange, heavy crown, that wreath of Sonnets, put on me one morning, unawares, three years after it had been twined."That twining is more than metaphor to cap a pretty figure of speech--the poems are labyrinthine, carefully constructed and deeply self-referential and recursive, some of the same figures return again and again to achieve new meaning and new depth.  Do yourself a favor and spend the time to read these as a single lovely long poem.  You won't regret it.


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