The color purple is mentioned 5 times throughout Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. Each mention is found in a different poem; they all have connected meanings, but are cleverly disguised in various ways. The color works to convey the unique characteristics of her lover, highlighting their differences while subtly revealing the speaker’s deeper anxieties she sees within their relationship and in her own feelings. She uses the color to separate herself from her lover, using it as justification to brush aside her love. Yet, as she falls deeper in love and becomes more invested in the relationship, the color is used, not to separate the two, but as a means of bringing the two together. She continues to use the color to express the strong love she feels for the lover’s character and presence in her life, showing that she has, or is beginning to get over some of the anxieties previously expressed in the early sonnets. She finally uses the color to describe how perfect her love is. The color’s significance and meaning changes with the speaker’s feelings towards her lover and works to weave a complex story about coming to terms with and understanding the feeling of falling deeply in love.
The first mention of the color is found in Sonnet 8, “And princely giver, who hast brought the gold/ And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold” (2-3). The alliteration found in the letter P of “princely” and “purple” connects the two, immediately showing the speaker’s association of her lover, described as princely, with the color purple. Purple is usually considered to be a very rich, wealthy, regal color. It is interesting that she considered her lover to be the more ‘purple’ of the two considering her own family holds greater status; perhaps she feels that she is not truly connected to this family status, or does not hold the same quality of royalty and status her lover does at his core “thine heart, unstained, untold”. This alludes to some of the anxieties she has surrounding the relationship.
Her anxiety becomes much more clear in Sonnet 9 where the distinction between the two lovers is made again through the color purple.The speaker says, “I will not soil thy purple with my dust” (11). Again, purple is used to describe her lover, suggesting that the purple is something in danger of being spoiled shows that the vibrancy and richness of the lover’s personality is something the speaker admires. When talking about her own personality, she compares herself to dust, something that is swept away, colorless, barely there, a film that lessens the value of what it covers. Perhaps the speaker is scared of ‘soiling’ her lovers color, or their relationship by falling for them. The juxtaposition could also be a way of noting the lover’s confidence, which as displayed by the nature of this sonnet is something the speaker does not have.
In sonnet 16, royalty, the color purple, and the speaker’s lover are all associated with one another, but now the relationship has developed a bit more and the speaker does not shy away from the prominent ‘purple’ manner the lover exudes, but wants to accept it into her life. “thou art more noble and like a king,/ Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling/ Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow” (2-4). In saying that her lover is more noble and king-like, she shows her true adoration of his character. She is perhaps more willing to worship his character, and their love than she is real royalty. The next line suggests that she cares more for her lover than she fears their relationship, and is willing to let him win against her weariness. In letting her lover’s purple to wrap around her, she is letting herself submit to the love she feels. What was once unknown and scary to her is now something she wants to learn from and incorporate in herself.
In finally accepting this love, the speaker may finally realize its value, preparing herself for a future that includes her lover. Sonnet 26 compares the joy of imagination to the joy real life can offer. In thinking back to the comforts of daydreaming the speaker notes that “soon their trailing purple was not free/ Of this world’s dust, their lutes did silent grow” (5-6). The color purple once again holds a positive connotation. The comparison between purple and dust, previously seen in sonnet 9 is repeated in the final usage of purple. As the speaker gets older her dreams and imagination begins to lose their allure as the real world begins to occupy her thoughts more than pleasant daydreams. In this case purple also seems to be heavily associated with a great, desirable, generally very happy quality of life or period of life for the speaker. “Their songs, their splendours…/Met in thee” (10-12) suggests that she is finding this same joy in her time spent with her new lover. Even implying that this new joy is better than her dream-filled younger years because it is based on real-life events. “Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame” (14).
Purple, although seemingly minute in significance, is in reality one of the driving factors of the speaker’s feelings for her lover. Purple is fancy gifts, purple is different, purple brings anxiety, purple is eye-opening, purple is fun, and purple brings a new life for the speaker, one that the speaker eventually accepts with enthusiasm. It’s complex and changes with time, just like her love.