Sonnet V

I have so much to say about this poem because it is startling, chilling, and direct.  Facts from Mrs. Browning's biography illuminate it--but the poem speaks for itself powerfully:

from Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

V

I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see
What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,
And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn
Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn
Could tread them out to darkness utterly,
It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up, . . . those laurels on thine head,
O my Belovèd, will not shield thee so,
That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
The hair beneath. Stand farther off then! go.

The first figure the poet chooses here is exactly correct and analogous--Electra with her brother's ashes.  I won't go into great detail, but Elizabeth felt directly responsible for the death of her younger and much cherished younger brother.  It was his death that triggered a crisis in her life that we see at the beginning of the poem where she was gradually sinking into death itself as a respite from her grief.  She was, in no way, responsible for this younger brother's death (he died at sea).

But the poem clearly delineates the hurdle and the threat that exists between the two--the question asked is "Will you be able to stamp out the glowing embers of this continuing grief, or instead will some random breeze fan them once again into a flame that would consume you?"  Her fear is that it is the latter event--that the grief is too strong:

But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up, . . . those laurels on thine head,
O my Belovèd, will not shield thee so,

Read the poem again--how perfectly she evokes this lingering grief and the fear that even this promis of love cannot stamp out the grief she still feels.

While all of this biographical detail adds to the depth of our appreciation of the poem, it is unnecessary to  understanding the central and powerful quandary.  This poem in the sequence also shows how elaborately interrelated these sonnets are, and how one need not expect at every turn another protestation of undying love.  In a curious way, it seems that Mrs. Browning is fleeing this relationship and flinging down in her path as obstacles to some ravening monster every object she can find.  You can imagine her, the heroine in some gothic novel, fleeing down the corridors and throwing down the candlesticks and tapestries as the would-be assailant closes in from behind.

Returning for one final, biographical note--for fifteen years, at least, she proved wrong--their romance is one of those great true love stories that are hardly believable.  But toward the end of her life, it is open to interpretation as to whether this lingering shadow did not lengthen and engulf her.

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