The “Silence of Womanhood”: Paradox as Power in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 13

April 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Sonnet 13 of Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning skillfully manipulates the sonnet form to construct what is essentially a love poem, albeit an unusual one that paradoxically eschews the rote sentimentality associated with these works and emphasizes separation rather than blissful union. The poem’s variations in syntactic structure, rhyme scheme, and diction all contribute to developing the theme of detachment and impossibility that pervades the first two quatrains. Although laden with allusions to suffering not as an archetypal symptom of Petrarchan romance but as something that disables the rites of courtship and delays the admission of love, the poem does not present a wholly hopeless and futile situation for the two lovers. Following the turn that occurs in its final sestet, Sonnet 13 ultimately concludes on a note of possibility and empowering self-introspection: while the sonnet revolves around the complicated relationship between Browning and her future husband, it is the poet herself who emerges in the final lines of the poem, self-conscious of her roles as sonneteer, invalid, and woman in love. Browning’s exercise in poetic variation and virtuosity, then, can be viewed as an apt reflection both of the paradox and the power that arises from the intertwining of these differing identities.

The first quatrain of Sonnet 13 consists of a single question, enjambed across four lines. Browning’s use of enjambment here creates the lingering effect of prolongment and technical difficulty, indicative of the very arduous task that it describes: that of having to “hold the torch out, while the winds are rough.” Conventional tropes of love poetry are thus twisted for use in a different context: it’s not love itself that is being compared to fire or stormy weather, but the exacting articulation of it. Her suitor demands of Browning that she find “words enough” to “fashion into speech” a declaration of love by which she can illuminate their relationship, to which she replies in the second quatrain that she cannot. Previously, the feeling of prolonged suffering and disability was developed through the use of enjambment; now, the problems faced by the speaker are carried over in the second quatrain (or, the second half of the octave in the Italian sonnet) in the form of rhyme. The rhyme scheme created by the pairing of “speech” and “each” remains in place with the continued phonetic presence in the words “teach” and “reach.”

Browning’s reply to her lover in the second quatrain of the poem is not one of loverly acquiescence but of refusal and resistance. There is a bold statement of rejection: “I drop it at thy feet,” which is paralleled in the variations that Browning introduces in poetic form. The suitor originally demands of Browning her poesy (as a stand-in or rather, extension, of love); here, Browning paradoxically declares herself the consummate poet even in denying her ability to “bring thee proof / In words, of love hid in me out of reach.” In contrast to the smooth, continuous flow of the first quatrain, the second quatrain is more explicitly and structurally reflective of the obstacles faced by the poet: caesuras are enacted through the period in the first line of the quatrain as well as through hyphens and a comma in the third and fourth lines. Her resistance is also exemplified in the fact that “off” and “proof” don’t quite rhyme, and their forced pairing with one another in the rhyme scheme evokes Browning’s refusal to exactly match the expectations created both of her suitor and of the poetic tradition.

Where the first quatrain implied the fundamental divide between Browning and her suitor, the second quatrain similarly presents the theme of division but presents it not as an externality but as an internal conflict within the poet herself. Reflected within the abundance of personal pronouns (the multiplicity of “I.” “my.” “myself” and “me”) is the implication of the sonnet form as something more psychological and depthful in nature. The difficulties that arise in Browning’s relationship, then, are less amorous than they are personal and individual dilemmas: “I cannot teach / My hand to hold my spirit so far off / From myself.” With “love” and “spirit” presented as irreconcilable concepts, the quatrain ends on a somber note and the future of Browning’s relationship seems bleak.

The turn that comes at the beginning of the sestet, then, is one of power regained. The decisive action of disposal that opened the second quatrain is mirrored in words: this time, the poet declares “Nay.” Variations in meter invoke Browning’s newfound sense of strength and ability as she uses trochaic feet to deliver decrees of her own accord, departing from all the previous lines of regular iambic pentameter: “let the silence of my womanhood / Commend my woman-love to thy belief.” She declares that her silence will be the answer to her lover’s proposal, “Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.” Her suffering, like her love, must be kept hidden beneath the “garment” of her life (according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a garment can refer to an “outward dress or covering in which anything is seen or manifested”): these self-imposed restrictions mirror the limitations of the sonnet form. So too, are the divisions of the sonnet (quantified into discrete, identifiable units) then reflective of the divisions faced by Browning with her suitor and within her own soul, recalled by the usage of the word “rend” in the sestet.

The ending paradox that arises from “dauntless, voiceless fortitude” is intriguing: Browning as poet finds strength in her words, Browning as lover is empowered by silence. As a sonnet written by a woman for a man, the poem is ultimately subversive at its core in its reversal of the writer-muse paradigm. With its abundance of poetic variation, Sonnet 13 is ultimately an exercise in self-consciousness, its focus developed on the writer’s psyche rather than on her ; the uniqueness of its creator’s identity is recollected and reconciled in the gendered terms with which Browning declares her “womanhood” and “woman-love.” The intertwining of poetry and romance implicit in the sonnet form is thus inherent not only in the actual, historical love affair between two renowned poets, but in the complex, intertextual relationship that Browning has with paradox, functioning both as power and paramour.

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