A Love Poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
Study Guide Prepared by By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised in 2011 ©
Sonnet 22 is a love poem in the form of a sonnet. A sonnet is a 14-line poem with a specifc rhyme scheme and meter (usually iambic pentameter). This poetry format—which forces the poet to wrap his thoughts in a small, neat package—originated in Sicily, Italy, in the 13th Century with the sonnetto (meaning little song), which could be read or sung to the accompaniment of a lute.
When English poets began writing poems in imitation of these Italian poems, they called them sonnets, a term coined from sonnetto. Frequently, the theme of a sonnet was love, or a theme related to love. However, the theme also sometimes centered on religion, politics, or other topics. Poets often wrote their sonnets as part of a series, with each sonnet a sequel to the previous one. For example, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote a series of 154 sonnets on the theme of love.
Between 1845 and 1846, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) wrote a series of forty-four sonnets, in secret, about the intense love she felt for her husband-to-be, poet Robert Browning. She called this series Sonnets From the Portuguese, a title based on the pet name Robert gave her, "my little Portugee."
In 1850, the London firm of Chapman and Hall published Sonnet 22 and the other poems in Sonnets from the Portuguese in Poems, a revision of an 1844 collection of the same name.
In composing her sonnets, Browning had two types of sonnet formats from which to choose: the Italian model popularized by Petrarch (1304-1374) and the English model popularized by Shakespeare (1564-1616). She chose Petrarch's model. For an in-depth discussion and analysis of both sonnet models, click here. The rhyme scheme of Sonnet 22 is as follows: Lines 1 to 8–ABBA, ABBA; Lines 9 to 14–CD, CD, CD. Petrarch's sonnets also rhymed ABBA and ABBA in the first eight lines. But the remaining six lines had one of the following schemes: (1) CDE, CDE; (2) CDC, CDC; or (3) CDE, DCE.
The first eight lines of a Petrarchan sonnet are called an octave; the remaining six lines are called a sestet. The octave presents the subject of the poem; the sestet offers a solution if there is a problem, provides an answer if there is a question, or simply presents further development of the theme. In Browning's Sonnet 22, the octave—which actually includes part of line 9—presents the status of their love in the form of a question and an observation, and the sestet argues in favor of maintaining the status.
.......The predominant meter of the poem is iambic pentameter. Here are examples:
........1...................2..................3................4.................5Line 5 veers from the pattern. It is best read as a tetrameter, with two anapests, one iamb, and another anapest.
..........1.....................2................3....................4Line 3 is in iambic pentameter if lengthening is read as two syllables (LENGTH ning). Line 6 is in iambic pentameter if higher is read as one syllable, rhyming with the last syllable of line 7 (-SPIRE).
The poet prizes intimate love in which her soul unites with that of her beloved in their own quiet world—away from the eyes of others, whether angels or men.
Life is short; darkness and death press in on it from all sides. Therefore, the poet tells her beloved, it is best for them to seize the day and express their love now.
Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
Line 1: souls, stand strongMetaphor
The angels would press on us and aspireParadox/Metaphor
Study Questions and Writing Topics