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Sonnet 22
A Love Poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
Study Guide
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What Is a Sonnet?
Browning's Sonnet Series
Publication
Rhyme Scheme and Divisions
Meter
Text of the Poem
Interpretation, Comments
Themes
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised in 2011 ©

Type of Work

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 formatwhich forces the poet to wrap his thoughts in a small, neat packageoriginated 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. 

Browning's Sonnet Series

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." 

Publication

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.

Rhyme Scheme and Divisions

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 octavewhich actually includes part of line 9presents the status of their love in the form of a question and an observation, and the sestet argues in favor of maintaining the status.

Meter

.......The predominant meter of the poem is iambic pentameter. Here are examples:

........1...................2..................3................4.................5
When OUR..|..two SOULS..|..stand UP..|..e RECT..|..and STRONG 

.....1..................2...................3...............4................5
The AN..|..gels WOULD..|..press ON..|..us AND..|..a SPIRE

.......1.................2...................3...............4...............5
To DROP..|..some GOLD..|..den ORB..|..of PER..|..fect SONG

Line 5 veers from the pattern. It is best read as a tetrameter, with two anapests, one iamb, and another anapest.
..........1.....................2................3....................4
........Anapest.................Anapest..............Iamb...................Anapest
Can the EARTH..|..do to US,..|..that WE..|..should not LONG
Line 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).

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Sonnet 22
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Published in 1850.
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1......a...When our two souls stand up erect and strong
2......b...Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
3......b...Until the lengthening wings break into fire
4......a...At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong
5......a...Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
6......b...Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
7......b...The angels would press on us and aspire
8......a...To drop some golden orb of perfect song
9......c...Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
10....d...Rather on earth, Beloved,—where the unfit
11....c...Contrarious moods of men recoil away
12....d...And isolate pure spirits, and permit
13....c...A place to stand and love in for a day,
14....d...With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.
Interpretation

When we draw closer and closer,
Until our burning love consumes
The wings that would carry us higher
Why, what harm is there in such earthbound love?
Think. If the wings of our love raised us to the celestial realm,
The angels would only try to disturb our intimacy
With some golden orb of heavenly song 
That intrudes on our precious silence.
Better it is to content ourselves on earth,
Where men who scorn people like us
Actually do us a favor by isolating us,
Allowing us a silent space in which to express our love
While darkness and death surround us.

Comments

Lines 1-3: These have been interpreted as metaphorically depicting intimate physical union.
Line 10: Except for words that begin lines or sentences, Beloved is the only capitalized word in the poem.
Line 11: Contrarious moods of men is perhaps a reference to Elizabeth's  tyrannical father's strong opposition to a romantic relationship between her and Robert Browning. In September 1846, she and Browning married in secret and a week later absconded to Pisa, Italy, where they lived for a time, then settled in Florence. There, she bore their only a child, a son. Her father never forgave her for he defiance of his will. 
Line 14: Darkness and death indeed surrounded Elizabeth much of her life. When she was a teenager she suffered a spinal injury and developed a lung ailment. She lived in weakened health the rest of her life.
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Themes

Intimate Love

The poet prizes intimate love in which her soul unites with that of her beloved in their own quiet worldaway from the eyes of others, whether angels or men. 

Carpe Diem

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.

Examples of Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

Line 1: souls, stand strong
Line 2: face to face; nigh and nigher
Line 4: what, wrong
Line 9: deep, deer
Line 11: moods, men
Line 12-13: pure, permit, place
Line 14: darkness, death-hour
Metaphor
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Comparison of song to an orb
Paradox/Metaphor
Lines 1-2: Souls, bodiless entities, stand up erect and strong; they draw nearer and nearer.
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Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a sonnet about love, religion, politics, or another topic.
  • Write an essay about how Elizabeth Barrett Browning influence other poets, including Edgar Allan Poe.
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting Elizabeth Barrett Browning's love poetry with that of her husband, Robert Browning.
  • What was the reaction of Elizabeth's father to her marriage to Robert Browning?
  • Was the marriage happy?
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