My Letters! is a classic sonnet written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This timeless sonnet was studied in IB English, and my group created a presentation detailing our thoughts and analysis about it to help our fellow students revise for their IB English exams. We cannot guarantee the accuracy of the analysis and interpretation; this will be left to you, the reader, to judge.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Introduction and Biographical Info:
This sonnet was written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the early 1840’s in a collection called the Sonnets from the Portuguese. However, to understand the Sonnet in context, a brief history of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, henceforth known as Barrett Browning, must be studied.
Barrett Browning was born in England and lived from 1806 to 1861. Her father owned a sugar plantation in Jamaica and as such Barrett Browning was born into a very wealthy family. Early in her life, Barrett Browning developed and unknown health condition leading to a deteriorating health and consequently stayed in the dark and gloomy house for most of the day. Studying works of the romantics, Greeks and Shakespeare, Elizabeth began to write poetry at a very young age. This love for publishing poetry eventually led to her meeting Robert Browning. In 1844, Robert Browning wrote a series of letters appraising Barrett Browning’s works. As a result the two met in a meeting the same year and began their courtship.
The Browning era
Elizabeth and Robert Browning’s courtship began and transpired in secret because her father did not approve. After two years of courtship, the two married in secret and moved away from home to Italy in 1846 and as a result Barrett Browning was disowned from the Barrett family. During their courtship years, Barrett Browning wrote a series of sonnets chronologically documenting their courtship. These sonnets were later published as the Sonnets from the Portuguese(1850). The title is significant because “Sonnets from the Portuguese”, was selected to make the content seem less personal using the guise of a translation of another poet’s work. However, the title was actually a reference to a term of endearment Robert had for Elizabeth, my little Portuguese, a reference to her dark complexion”(Victorian Web). The collection consists of 48 sonnets. Since the sonnets are a chronological representation of Barrett and Browning’s courtship. Number XXVIII (28) out of 48 would be the midpoint of their relationship corresponding to the doubt that Barrett Browning had about the true intentions of Robert Browning. As such this poem is unlike other Romantic poems studied as it is more intimate like a journal than generalizations of grandeur.
As with many of the sonnets that have been studied in this class, the structure of this sonnet and most of the collection is Italian Petrarchan with an iambic pentameter rhythm. Typically, this structure is reserved for the expression of unattainable love. In this sonnet EBB is concerned about the validity of Browning’s love for her. The fourteen lines are split up into the octave, consisting of the first eight lines, and the sestet, which are the final six. These two large sections are divided by the volta, where a significant tone shift occurs in the passage. Consequently, each large section can be divided into two smaller sections. The octave consists of two quatrains where the first quatrain outlines a problem, and the second builds on it. The sestet may be divided into two tercets, which are three line sections, as well. The general rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA CDC DCD. The sonnet still follows the Romantic lyric structure which is common in most Romantic poetry.
As a Romantic lyric, the poem first outlines something the individual notices and establishes a real setting. This is then followed by the “metaphysical” where the individual elevates from the real into a land of fantasy. In the sestet that follows, order is restored and insight is established along with theme. The theme of the sonnet that arises due to close analysis and reading is the power of the inanimate to provoke love and emotion as personified through letters to outline the timeless feeling of doubt of real love in courtship.
These letters—mere paper, inanimate and white,
But more than that; they come to life in my hand.
My hand quivers as I unravel the batch of letters
They fall onto my lap for the evening read.
This said – Robert wished to see me,
Once, as a friend: he picked a day in spring
To come and touch my hand . . . a simple thing,
Yet I still cried! – this… the paper’s light …
This one reads, I love you; it makes me shake and tremble
As if the world is behind me and I am away from the world
This one said, I am yours – the ink on this letter has faded
From lying alongside my beating heart for too long.
And this one… O Love, your words would be in vain
If I were to read it aloud
Analysis of 1st Quatrain (Xuehai) (ABBA)
The first quatrain introduces the conflict within the sonnet. Essentially, Barrett Browning is trying to introduce the letters. The first line starts off with an exclamatory use of apostrophe “My letters!” This addresses the letters as an actual being and as such explosively brings the letters to life, treating them as individuals. This initial apostrophe is then contrasted immediately by inanimate imagery. The papers are “dead”, “mute”, and “white”. The excessive use of punctuation such as exclamation and caesura emphasize this chaos of the paradox. The dashes also break the rhythm of the iambic pentameter to contribute to the chaos of line 1. Once Barrett Browning has caught the reader’s attention, she propagates the paradox in line two. Here, the shift word “yet” is introduced to switch the focus away from what the letters physically are to what they represent. Tactile imagery is used in line 2 to contrast the imagery in line one. Instead of dead and mute, they are personified and “seem alive and quivering”. This personification and tactile imagery gives empathy for the letters and focuses the scope of the setting.
Next, Barrett Browning introduces herself into the sonnet through the word “my”. In line three, she notes that the letters are quivering “Against [her] tremulous hands”. The preposition “against” is important because it provides a physical anchor for the dynamic imagery that follows. She notes that her hands are “tremulous” which is in direct parallel of the quivering letters; this provides intimacy between the two parties in the quatrain and transforms the whole quatrain into an intimate first person expression. Now she begins to unravel the letters as she begins to “loose the string”. This freeing of the bound letters can be interpreted both literally and metaphorically. It will become apparent in the 2nd quatrain that by unleashing the letters, she is also unleashing their liveliness. However, for now in the fourth line, they merely “drop down on [her] knee to-night”. The excessive use of monosyllabic words, assonance of “e” and alliteration (“ds” “ks”) slow down this line significantly. The last line also sets the setting and inciting action of the sonnet, it continues to treat the letters as living words “them”. Essentially, Barrett Browning creates a dynamic image of falling letters, dropping not like feather but like heavy weights onto her sick frail body. Overall, this creates a sense of claustrophobia which is reflective of her sick days trapped inside the house. The first quatrain has no pastoral imagery, no colour, no noise, but is extremely tactile. The quatrain also ends in “night”, providing a precursor to the fantastical world of the 2nd quatrain.
Analysis of 2nd Quatrain (Brian)
The second quatrain from lines 5-8 turns the thoughts and emotions present in the first quatrain into a powerful flight of fancy. It also illustrates the power and emotional content of the letters which appear to the cornerstone of their secret relationship.
As a whole, this quatrain reflects the progress of their relationship. The hesitation present in the first quatrain has all but disappeared, which is representative of the initial part of their courtship. It has been replaced with desire, which has been awakened by the reading of the letters. This emphasizes the main theme of letters and words capturing inexplicable and complex human emotions.
On the last line of the previous quatrain, Barrett Browning has taken these crucial letters and “let them drop down on [her] knee to-night”. With the image of falling letters in mind, she transitions to the examination of the letters with the words “This said” before the transition. This builds suspense, since it appears that she has been temporarily consumed by the thoughts in these letters. Once this break, or caesura, ends, she reveals that her lover Robert Browning originally regarded them as friends. The usage of the caesura once again indicates that a shift is happening due to the break in rhythm, and helps emphasize the distinctive nature of the quatrain. In addition, the punctuation used—a long dash—indicates that the shift is more dramatic than an ellipsis because the ellipsis is often associated with thoughts trailing off rather than shifts.
This caesura helps emphasize the introduction of Robert Browning into the sonnet, since “he” is the first word after the caesura. It also makes himself and the contents of the letters more pronounced.
Moreover, line 5 is completely composed of monosyllabic diction which symbolizes her breathlessness as she is looking at the letters that are all around here. It builds upon the imagery of falling letters from the first quatrain.
Barrett Browning, in lines 5 and 6, reveals that the first letter suggests that Robert Browning initially wanted to see her just once as a friend, which summarizes the first step of their relationship in a rather succinct manner. This is followed by another gap—a possible caesura—which allows Barrett Browning to quickly shift into the next letter in a rapid manner. She shifts to the second letter, which involves him visiting her in person on a fine spring day. This second letter is part of the flight of fancy: the monosyllabic diction reinforces suspense and urgency, and the pastoral imagery complements this scene. The pastoral scene of a “day in spring . . . a simple thing” is characteristic of a poem in the Romantic era, which romanticizes the pastoral life. Ironically, “simple” is the only word in the line that is not monosyllabic.
Furthermore, the parallel rhyme between lines 6 and 7 adds to this beautiful pastoral scene. The rhyme between “friend” and “hand” adds to the fanciful atmosphere, and it makes the entire pastoral section flow extremely well. The rhyme at the end of lines 6 and 7 between “spring” and “thing” had a similar effect. Overall, these two sets of rhymes deviates from Barrett Browning’s rhyming convention in this sonnet, which emphasizes the distinctiveness of the pastoral scene.
In the last line of the quatrain, Barrett Browning reveals that she still wept about this scene, despite the simplicity and beauty. The sudden shift in tone from fanciful to sadness reveals the complexities of emotions in their relationship. In addition, the exclamation mark at the end of the first half of line 8, in conjunction with the following dashes, help shift the poem from the fanciful (their relationship) to something more concrete (the paper/letter). The warm feeling that came from the pastoral image carries on when Barrett Browning mentions “the paper’s light”. This is likely an allusion to the sacredness of these letters and the power of emotion in the words, which transitions nicely into the volta.
The constant monosyllabic diction and multiple caesuras help illustrate the emotional content of their letters, and consequently their relationship. The simple diction symbolizes her breathlessness at the literary beauty before her. The multiple caesuras illustrate breaks in thought which create shifts and help release overwhelming emotion. By releasing overwhelming emotions, Barrett Browning creates “waves” of emotions, since each shift can represent a trough which eventually rises to become a crest.
Overall, the second quatrain builds on top of the problem expressed in the first quatrain. The central problem is the uncertainty of their relationship—Barrett Browning’s father did not approve of this relationship. Thus, the letters were the only evidence of their relationship. However, the authenticity of the words, in Barrett Browning’s mind, could be questionable. The sestet will reveal how emotion in the words overcomes doubt and uncertainty, which demonstrates the power of emotions, a central theme in this sonnet.
Analysis of First Tercet/Volta (Erich)
Due to the informal origins of the sonnet (based on love letters), the volta deviates in terms of placement relative to other Romantic sonnets. This is a relatively unconventional way of placing a volta, which alludes to their rather unconventional relationship. In this sonnet, it appears that the volta begins in the second half of line 8, right after the exclamatory statement. The tone, in this volta, shifts from one of sadness/melancholy (Yet I wept for it!) to one of euphoria. The source of euphoria originates from the revelation of the text of the letters, which also makes the sestet distinct from the octave. In the octave, the letters were paraphrased, but not directly revealed to the reader.
The rhyming pattern for the sestet is CDCDCD. This is significant to the division of the sestet because instead of dividing it into 2 halves, it is divided into thirds where each pair of lines represents one letter. Thus the very last two lines represent the last letter that she has mentioned of the three letters Barrett Browning outlines in the 2nd quatrain.
In line 8, Barrett Browning continues the volta by revealing the text of the first letter which are represented by italics: she reads, “Dear, I love thee”, which is the first quote from a letter in this sonnet thus far. The simplicity of this quote makes her reaction all the more dramatic: she “sank and quailed”. Despite the simple diction, she has a dramatic physical reaction, which is an excellent example of tactile imagery.
She connects this thought to line 10 with a simile. She likens the letter and her reaction to “God’s future thundered on my past”, which is an allusion to the power of God both in the past and future. It also provides a clear image to the reader as to the immense effect of the quote from the letter: Barrett Browning feels as if God himself has shaken the world around her.
She cannot bear having this letter in front of her for too long, so she progresses onto the next letter with “This said”, a fine example of repetition. She provides another quote: “I am thine”. Yet again, simple diction is used in the letter excerpt. The similar syntax links the letters together in terms of structure. Moreover, there is a parallel structure between the two quotes. Clearly, “I love thee” and “I am thine” resemble each other strongly. The position of the pronoun “I” at the beginning of both quotes, and the position of the direct object “thee” or “thine” evidently show the reader that they are both intrinsically connected. It reinforces the central theme of the power of words and their relation to emotion and renders the reader physically destroyed. Through simple language, the fear and uncertainty in this relationship are cast aside.
In essence, this tercet restores love in Barrett Browning, as the imagery, diction and repetition employed exemplify the honesty and simplicity in this relationship, casting aside doubt and uncertainty that may have remained.
The second tercet begins where the 1st left off. The ink imagery of the third letter is enjambed into the 2nd tercet; it has “paled” with lying at her heart for so long. There is no distinct transition between the first tercet and the second because there is essentially a letter that has been split in half by the tercet division. The final tercet also represents a final shift in the chaotic thunderstorm of the 2nd quatrain and 1st tercet; it has only one ellipsis. It brings the poem back to the beginning with a new light on the “dead” and “mute” letters. Thematically, it empowers the letters, as they have become “thy words”, Robert Browning’s words.
At the same time, EBB still creates suspense through line division. The last two lines are a reference to the last letter, and EBB introduces this final letter with a typical “this”, which is how she transitions to every other letter. However, the words present in this letter appear to be too powerful in terms of emotions for her to handle; she shifts to a slightly different topic with the help of the ellipsis. This is where the apostrophe is introduced: instead of mentioning the letter, she refers to the author, Robert Browning, with an apostrophe of “O Love”. Then, she mentions the effect of his words, which is emphasized by the simple and monosyllabic diction. At first, when she mentions that the letters words have “ill availed” the audience feels a jarring sensation of disappointment. However, as the sonnet flows into the final line, the shift word “if” completely changes the declaration into a conditional statement. “What this said” refers to the writing in the third letter. The condition is that the words would only be void if the letter’s contents were revealed to the public.
- The constant monosyllabic diction that permeates this entire sonnet is representative of the short bursts of love that often occur in a relationship. It also allows Barrett Browning to emphasize introductions of letters and thoughts throughout this sonnet. It also illustrates the thought that simple is often beneficial in love: for example, the phrase “I love you” often means much more to someone than an entire paragraph of text. This illustrates the power of words in relation to emotion.
- The references to time (the first two “D” lines) are the only two lines in this entire sonnet that end with a period, which is interesting considering the infinite nature of time; theoretically, time has no limits. This ironic comment on time may be a reference to Barrett Browning’s limited time spent with her lover. Right after the last actual period, there is a reference to “O Love”, which supports the idea that the limited time idea refers to her lover. This is consistent with the theme of the sonnet, which is the idea that love and relationships are intrinsically connected to time.
- The lack of consistent verb tense is consistent with the nature of love and purity. What we mean by this is the shift from present to past and vice versa throughout the sonnet. [refer to diagram depicting time links in the ends of the “D” lines” Through words, Barrett Browning highlights the timeless feeling of doubt and love in a relationship.
In conclusion, this unconventional sonnet uses the letters presented to express the deep emotion that can be felt through inanimate objects. Though the writer and recipient of the letters are known from the biography, the sonnet can still be interpreted as a Romantic lyric about the trials of courtship. As a sonnet in the middle of the “Sonnets from the Portuguese” collection, the sonnet should outline a state of doubt between parties in courtship. The sonnet is filled with dramatic emotion and waves of passion. This passion combined with the excessive use of ellipsis and caesuras creates chaos in the sonnet, emphasizing doubt. By the end of the sonnet, it becomes apparent that the letters are only significant to the beholder and have eternal value.
Adam Matthew Digital Ltd. Biographies – Literary Manuscripts – Berg – Adam Matthew Digital. 30 January 2010 <http://www.literarymanuscriptsberg.amdigital.co.uk.libproxy.uregina.ca:2048/Biographies/ Biographies.aspx#B>.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning – Poets.org – Poetry, Poems, Bios & More. 5 February 2010 <http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/152>.
Everett, Glenn. The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 6 April 2002. 1 February 2010 <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ebb/ebbio.html>.
Ferreri, Kirsten, perf. “28 – My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!” Sonnets from the Portugese. 2007. LibriVox – Sonnets from the Portugese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. LibriVox, 22 Sept. 2007. Web. 7 Feb. 2010. <http://librivox.org/sonnets-from-the-portugese-by-elizabeth-barrett-browning/>.
Mattheisen, Paul F. “Browning, Elizabeth Barrett.” Encyclopedia Americana. Vol. 4. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier, 2002. 637. Print.
Mermin, Dorothy. “The Female Poet and the Embarrassed Reader: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.” ELH 48.2 (1981): 351-67. Print.