The female speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, “I,” equates Love to Death. The speaker alludes to both the figurative and literal deaths that can occur when a woman enters the institution of marriage. The critique that the speaker offers is twofold. First, when a woman is married, her name is removed from all legal records, effectively allowing her husband’s identity to subsume hers. The subsuming of a woman’s identity on the day of her marriage came as a direct result of the coverture laws that were in place in England during the nineteenth century; this is the figurative death that the speaker alludes to in the poem. The literal death that the speaker points to stems from domestic violence. Husbands, under the laws of coverture, had the right to do whatever they saw fit to their wives to “keep them in line” because they were legally their property. Violence of all kinds was tolerated because men were deemed the ultimate figures of authority, and women were meant to be subordinate to them. The speaker shares her fears regarding falling in love through the use of violent diction, enjambment, and halting syntax. She recognizes that Death inevitably follows Love (whether it be figurative or literal death) and she struggles with what to do with this knowledge. Should she allow herself to fall in love with a man or should she go to great lengths to avoid any man who could potentially capture her interest, so she is able to remain an autonomous individual? The speaker points out this dilemma that she faces and shows how these patriarchal laws and hierarchies are doing nothing but exploiting and oppressing women.
The speaker begins the sonnet by reminiscing on the past, stating: “I thought once . . . Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years” (l. 1-2). The speaker remembers a time before she had to make a choice between her desire for autonomy and her desire for a rich and fulfilling love. She remembers the time “in her own life” when she did not “weep” or have to look at the world through her veil of “tears” (l. 6-10). The constraints that coverture laws threaten the speaker with cause her to feel a great deal of anxiety at the prospect of love and marriage. She realizes that she can either detach herself from the man that she is falling in love with, or she can lose herself and the few rights that she does have as a single woman. The speaker claims that she sees “A shadow across [her]. Straightaway [she is] ’ware” (l. 9). The significance of this moment—the speaker’s instantaneous understanding of what will happen to her if she marries—is depicted through the enjambment that Barrett Browning uses. The clear pause that the period offers symbolizes the finality and resignation that the speaker feels. The use of the word “straightaway” to describe her awareness of the situation shows her immediate sense of wariness and mistrust. The shadow—or Death, as she believes it to be—trails after her as she contemplates what to do about her feelings of affection.
The speaker explains that immediately after its presence is made known, Death “[draws her] back by the hair” and tries to take “mastery” over her (l. 11-12). The language that the speaker uses evokes violent images in the minds of readers. Death is not peaceful or gentle; it is forceful and cruel, pulling on the speaker’s hair and wanting to dominate her. The speaker, along with the readers, are shocked when the shadow tells her that it is not Death that is treating her in such an inhumane way, but Love. The implications of this proclamation are crucial to understanding the speaker’s anxieties; Love has the power to be just as harmful and unforgiving as Death is, especially in its actions towards women. Love is not always patient and kind—it’s sometimes domineering, intimidating, and terrifying. The speaker articulates this most clearly when she says that Love wishes to “master” her, much like a husband might wish to exert his control over his wife and force her into a subservient role. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, through the voice of her speaker, suggests that until women have the legal ability to be both wives and autonomous individuals, it is not safe for them to be married, as there is no way for them to be legally protected from their husbands if they were ever to find themselves in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. As a result of this, the speaker feels a great deal of trepidation at the prospect of falling in love.