This is a sonnet that you might recognize––or at least you might recognize the first couple of lines:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Sonnets from the Portuguese 43:
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Try reading this poem aloud, just as if it’s prose rather than poetry, which is how modern readers tend to read formal poetry. In other words don’t emphasize the rhythm and meter, but just allow them to emerge naturally from the wording.
The poem, being a Sonnet, uses a meter known as iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter has been used for many poetic forms as well as sonnets.
For example, pretty much all of Shakespeare’s plays are written in iambic pentameter (as are his sonnets, of course).
Non-rhyming verse written iambic pentameter is called, blank verse.
When you listen to a Shakespeare play most of the time you’re not really aware that you’re listening to poetry.
This is because iambic pentameter (according to my actor friends) is very close to the normal patterns of human speech––at least in English.
For me, this is the power of the sonnet.
You hear a sonnet, and you’re not really aware you’re listening to poetry until the cadence sneaks up behind the words.
I think of sonnets almost as being stealth poetry.
So, how does iambic pentameter work––and please, if you’re terrified of the idea of formal meter, you are not alone, but it’s simpler than it looks at first sight.
These are the rules:
1: Ten syllables per line.
2: The syllables are grouped into pairs––so you have five pairs.
3: The emphasis is on the even numbered syllables.
And that’s pretty much it for iambic pentameter…aside from the very first pair of syllables of your sonnet, in which the stress is reversed.
So the rhythm is:
Be-doo— Be-doo— Be-doo— Be-doo— Be-doo
When I’m writing a sonnet I have a habit of counting the syllables on my fingers, and I sometimes wonder if that’s how iambic pentameter came about in the first place.
If you want to do the reversed pair of syllables for the first line it’s:
Be-doo— Be-doo— Be-doo— Be-doo— Be-doo
This is how Sonnet from the Portuguese 43 would sound if you really emphasized the meter:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
You shouldn’t recite it like that, of course, but this is just to help you understand the form.
Once you’ve got a handle on the meter, these are the rules for the sonnet:
1: 14 lines, which are broken up into 3 four line quatrains, followed by a 2 line couplet to finish.
2: There are several rhyming schemes, but Elizabeth Barrett Browning used the Italian scheme: ABBA CDDC EFEF EF
3: The English sonnet is: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
4: You could invent your own rhyming scheme, or use slant rhymes, or no rhymes at all.
5: A sonnet is intended to be persuasive. In other words it’s a kind of essay.
This is something I found online:
in a sonnet by Shakespeare, there are four groups of rhyming lines, followed by a couplet. The couplet naturally becomes an exciting “turn” or “twist” in the sonnet, or sometimes a little summary. In contract, in sonnets by the Italian poet Petrarch, the rhyming lines divide into a group of eight followed by a group of six – so instead of having a thought that develops for twelve lines and then a catchy rhymed couplet, you get one idea for about half of the poem, followed by a twist (called a “volta”) and then another idea for the next six lines.
So, in Elizabeth Barret Browning’s sonnet, the first 8 lines are an attempt to quantify her love to her beloved, in terms of size and shape.
The last 6 lines reveal where her love came from; her childhood faith in the old religion (with its saints), which she has now transferred to her beloved.
In other words her beloved––if not God himself––is at least on the level of a saint.
Who was Elizabeth Barrett Browning?
Elizabeth Barrett was born on March 6, 1806, at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, England. She was an English poet of the Romantic Movement, and is sometimes included among the Great Romantics.
Elizabeth was the first child in her family to be born in England in over two hundred years. The Barrett family were part Creole, and had lived in Jamaica before settling in England.
She was plagued by a number of chronic ailments as a child, and these disorders continued to affect her throughout her life.
The Barretts had owned a sugar plantation in Jamaica, and relied on slave labor, but this was the era of abolition in Britain and its colonies. Elizabeth was a die-hard abolitionist, and this caused a great deal of conflict with her family.
With the end of slavery the Barrett family lost their fortune, and Elizabeth’s father became increasingly tyrannical, effectively imprisoning Elizabeth in the family house.
In spite of being under house arrest Elizabeth published a number of collections of poetry, eventually becoming quite famous.
In 1844 a volume of her poetry attracted the attention of one of the best-known British poets of the time: Robert Browning.
Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning exchanged around 600 letters over the next two years (nearly one a day!).
In 1846 the couple eloped and moved to Florence Italy. Elizabeth’s health improved and she bore a son.
Sonnets from the Portuguese is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most well known work.
The title of the collection reveals two important things about her. Her father’s philistine attitude led her to be very self-effacing and humble about her poetry. Calling the book, Sonnets from the Portuguese, made it seem as though she hadn’t really written the sonnets herself, but had merely translated some older Portuguese works.
‘Portuguese’ was Robert Browning’s nickname for her, presumably because her creole ethnicity would have made her appear very dark skinned in Victorian England.
She was as popular in the USA as she was in England, and most of her books were published in the States. Her American reviewer was none other than Edgar Allen Poe. Poe and Barrett Browning exchanged letters, and Poe actually used one of Elizabeth’s poems for the meter of, ‘The Raven.’
Consequently he dedicated the Raven to her.
Here is the text of a letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Poe:
Dear Sir, — Receiving a book from you seems to authorize or at least encourage me to try to express what I have felt long before — my sense of the high honor you have done me in [[illegible]] your country and of mine, of the dedication of your poems. It is too great a distinction, conferred by a hand of too liberal generosity. I wish for my own sake I were worthy of it. But I may endeavour, by future work, to justify a little what I cannot deserve anywise, now. For it, meanwhile, I may be grateful — because gratitude is the virtue of the humblest.
After which imperfect acknowledgment of my personal obligation may I thank you as another reader would thank you for this vivid writing, this power which is felt! Your “Raven” has produced a sensation, a “fit horror,” here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the “Nevermore,” and one acquaintance of mine who has the misfortune of possessing a “bust of Pallas” never can bear to look at it in the twilight. I think you will like to be told our great poet, Mr. Browning, the author of “Paracelsus,” and the “Bells and Pomegranates,” was struck much by the rhythm of that poem.
Then there is a tale of yours (“The Case of M. Valdemar”) which I do not find in this volume, but which is going the round of the newspapers, about mesmerism, throwing us all into “most admired disorder,” and dreadful doubts as to whether “it can be true,” as the children say of ghost stories. The certain thing in the tale in question is the power of the writer, and the faculty he has of making horrible improbabilities seem near and familiar.
And now will you permit me, dear Mr. Poe, as one who though a stranger is grateful to you, and has the right of esteeming you though unseen by your eyes will you permit me to remain
Very truly yours always,
Elizabeth Barrett Barrett.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence on June 29, 1861.
Here are a few more fo her Sonnets from the Portuguese.
I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was ’ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,—
“Guess now who holds thee!”—“Death,” I said, But, there,
The silver answer rang, “Not Death, but Love.”
Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I forbore—
Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine,
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
I love her for her smile … her look … her way
Of speaking gently, … for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day’—
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity.
Let the world’s sharpness like a clasping knife
Shut in upon itself and do no harm
In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm,
And let us hear no sound of human strife
After the click of the shutting. Life to life—
I lean upon thee, Dear, without alarm,
And feel as safe as guarded by a charm
Against the stab of worldlings, who if rife
Are weak to injure. Very whitely still
The lilies of our lives may reassure
Their blossoms from their roots, accessible
Alone to heavenly dews that drop not fewer;
Growing straight, out of man’s reach, on the hill.
God only, who made us rich, can make us poor.
Yes, call me by my pet-name! let me hear
The name I used to run at, when a child,
From innocent play, and leave the cowslips plied,
To glance up in some face that proved me dear
With the look of its eyes. I miss the clear
Fond voices which, being drawn and reconciled
Into the music of Heaven’s undefiled,
Call me no longer. Silence on the bier,
While I call God—call God!—so let thy mouth
Be heir to those who are now exanimate.
Gather the north flowers to complete the south,
And catch the early love up in the late.
Yes, call me by that name,—and I, in truth,
With the same heart, will answer and not wait.
When we met first and loved, I did not build
Upon the event with marble. Could it mean
To last, a love set pendulous between
Sorrow and sorrow? Nay, I rather thrilled,
Distrusting every light that seemed to gild
The onward path, and feared to overlean
A finger even. And, though I have grown serene
And strong since then, I think that God has willed
A still renewable fear . . . O love, O troth . . .
Lest these enclaspëd hands should never hold,
This mutual kiss drop down between us both
As an unowned thing, once the lips being cold.
And Love, be false! if he, to keep one oath,
Must lose one joy, by his life’s star foretold.
My future will not copy fair my past—
I wrote that once; and thinking at my side
My ministering life-angel justified
The word by his appealing look upcast
To the white throne of God, I turned at last,
And there, instead, saw thee, not unallied
To angels in thy soul! Then I, long tried
By natural ills, received the comfort fast,
While budding, at thy sight, my pilgrim’s staff
Gave out green leaves with morning dews impearled.
I seek no copy now of life’s first half:
Leave here the pages with long musing curled,
And write me new my future’s epigraph,
New angel mine, unhoped for in the world!
Here are a few more Sonnets by other poets:
Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892 – 1950
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
From 4 sonnets about food:
Words can’t do
what bird bones
to the stony
small soul, the spent
sacrifice boiled down
to the hard white
matter that nourishes
predator, who flourishes
on the slaughtered
animal and water.
Esther Cameron: The Fast of Esther.
Can anyone still hear my people’s cry,
Even they themselves? Can anybody stand
In the blown-apart heart of the Holy Land,
Can anybody see with shattered eye
All that is done? Can anyone think why,
Marshal a shredded brain to understand?
Can anybody grasp a severed hand,
Can a cut-out tongue still stammer of Sinai?
O GOD, restore the image of Your Law,
Restore the sacredness of human form,
If not for Israel’s, for your sweet earth’s sake.
Send us a sign, send forth a ray to draw
Love’s faithful in against the hateful storm,
To uphold the norm, and face down Amalek!
Tapestry by Amy Forman.
The pattern on the underside confused
By snarl and tangle, jumbled, twisting knot.
Its warp and woof embroidered without thought
It seems: the flawless linen now infused
With spots of wreckage—perfect weave abused.
“A waste of thread,” I cry, upset, distraught,
and try to pluck the mess now sewn in taut.
Then see the Eye that watches me, amused—
Whose Hand now turns the fabric tight-side-up.
I, thunderstruck, perceive a pristine shawl,
True motif, dyed perfection, glossy shine
That stirs me as I contemplate close-up
The faultless weft, undamaged after all.
Eternity alone discerns design.
Lorna Davis: November.
The golden days of late October fade
As bleak November’s iron skies descend.
When tresses, like the leaden clouds, have greyed,
We see our fruitful time’s approaching end.
The sunshine that besieged us with its heat
Now leans against the south walls, cold and tired.
There is no empire time will not defeat;
Each Golden Age that flared has soon expired.
Byzantium lies silent under steel,
Persepolis has crumbled back to dust.
Despite the wistful longing we might feel,
All times of summer fade, as fade they must.
Embrace what time remains; it will not last.
Your autumn, too, will soon be ancient past.
Finally (for now) Marion Shore:
Petrarch on West 115th Street
Piu volte Amor m’avea gia detto—Scrivi
Back in those days a never-ending feature
of my life was that I seemed to be
in love—most often, unrequitedly—
when you became my mentor, soulmate, preacher.
I’d fallen hard for my Italian teacher,
and I took refuge in your company,
you who saw my heart, who spoke for me
the words I never told a living creature.
And that is when I have the inspiration
to translate you. Then on pretext of
asking for his advice on my translation,
O mio maestro, I let you speak the love
I held inside, and still he never new.
Petrarch, maybe I even out-Petrarched you.
So, your homework is to write a sonnet. You have all the rules here:
1: 14 lines of Iambic Pentameter.
2: English or Italian rhyming scheme.
3: Use the sonnet to persuade somebody of something.
That’s it. Use the rules to make a classical sonnet, or throw any––or all––of the rules out of the window and make your own rules instead.
Have fun with it.