The Burden of Love: A Close Reading of Sonnets from the Portuguese: XII

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese: XII, Browing confronts a multitude of topics surrounding love, whether relevant to her time or timeless abstract concepts that one must approach when in love. Throughout this sonnet, there is ultimately a double meaning between what the author describes as the consequences, or effects of love, treading between the concept of the objectification of women in relation to their husbands, and the burden of feeling the strong emotions evoked through falling in love. As the sonnet begins, reading:

“Indeed this very love which is my boast,
And which, when rising up from breast to brow,
Doth crown me with a ruby large enow
To draw men’s eyes and prove the inner cost”
This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,” (Barrett Browning 1-5).

Whilst later going on to say, “Hadst set an me an example, shown me how” (Barrett Browning 7). The author is commentating on finding love through societal status, through material objects such as “a ruby large enow to draw men’s eyes”, along with abstract concepts or terms such as “boast”, “cost”, and “worth”. Through these terms, and writing, “prove the inner cost” the author is expressing the concept of finding love as a women, love that illustrates itself in as one’s “worth” is something to “prove”.

This concept is maintained throughout the sonnet as later the author goes on to write: “Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,/ And placed it by thee on a golden throne” (Barrett Browning 11-12). In saying, “thy soul hath snatched up mine”, the author is implying that for a woman, love manifests itself in women being an object for men to “snatch” or attain; women being an object of desire.

While this was one reading I took from this sonnet, another is more expressive of the burdens that love provides in manifesting strong emotions. Rather than a commentary on materialism or objectification, the author could be using the “ruby large enow to draw men’s eyes” as a metaphor for the heart, as they are both red, and between the “breast and brow.” When the author writes, “And thus, I cannot speak/ Of love even, as a good thing of my own:/ Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,/ And placed it by thee on a golden throne” (Barrett Browning 9-12), while expressing that love is not “a good thing of my own”, it is explained in that the author’s soul was “faint and weak.” The faint and weakness of the author’s soul could be representative of the strong emotional connection towards whom the author is in love with, and that their soul being “snatched” is not necessarily an action of their partner, but the strong emotions of the author that has fallen in love.

2 thoughts on “The Burden of Love: A Close Reading of Sonnets from the Portuguese: XII”

  1. I like how you explored the ideas of the burden of love and as love as something to attain. I wonder if you could possibly compare that attaining of love to the poem “The Marriage Vow” and other poems written by women surrounding marriage. I wonder how those poems would compare to those written by men about marriage. I really liked the idea of the author falling in love and expressing that in the writing as sometimes I tend to detach the poem and the author.

  2. I really liked your material and emotional reading of “Sonnets from the Portuguese”. I completely agree that many of the same lines can be read with the tension of the historical context of losing oneself through marriage for legal reasons (like coverture) but also as losing oneself in love. I think the ability to trace both themes in these poems allows them to be historically representative of women’s subjugated role in society as well as timelessly indicative of the struggles of giving away one’s heart.

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