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Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese XIX - analysis

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Sonnet XIX

The soul's Rialto hath its merchandise;

I barter curl for curl upon that mart;

And from my poet's forehead to my heart,

Receive this lock which outweighs argosies—

As purply black, as erst to Pindar's eyes

The dim purpureal tresses gloomed athwart

The nine white Muse-brows. For this counterpart,

Thy bay-crown's shade, Beloved, I surmise,

Still lingers on thy curl, it is so black!

Thus, with a fillet of smooth-kissing breath,

I tie the shadow safe from gliding back.

And lay the gift where nothing hindereth.

Here on my heart as on thy brow, to lack

No natural beat till mine grows cold in death.


Sonnet 18 :

I never gave a lock of hair away

To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,

Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully

I ring out to the full brown length, and say,

“Take it.” My day of youth went yesterday;

My hair no longer bounds to my foot's glee,

Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree.

As girls do, anymore. It only may

Now shade, on two pale cheeks, the mark of tears,

Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside

Through sorrow's trick. I thought the funeral-shears

Would take this first: but Love is justified:

Take it thou, . . . finding pure, from all those years,

The kiss my mother left here when she died.


After reading sonnet 18, we notice that sonnet 19 follows up on the theme of the lock of hair. We understand that Elizabeth and Robert each sent a letter with a curl of their hair to the other. Yet even though the last words of those two poems are almost the same: “died” and “death”, the sonnets don’t convey the same feelings. Sonnet 18 is tinged with sadness and nostalgia, whereas the following focuses more on the relationship between the two lovers.

 How does this sonnet, by developing the theme of the lock of hair, express the strength of Elizabeth and Robert’s love relationship?

We can see three main parts in this poem. The first one gives us the setting, as the relationship of the lovers is described first through the extended metaphor of the market; the second part describes Elizabeth’s emotional reaction to the letter and the gift of the curl, their relationship is then being compared to a mythological scene, before the third part focuses on Elizabeth’s physical reaction to receiving the letter, enhancing the intimacy of the lovers


l. 1 and 2
The term “rialto” opens up the extended metaphor of the lovers’ relationship. The Italian word “rialto” originally refers to Venice’s historical marketplace and came to design a market in general. We may think this Italian word was added during some changes or revisions Elizabeth made when she was in Italy, but it is not sure. A lexical field then develops around the theme of trade, with the words “merchandise”, “barter”, and “mart”. This idea of trade for the soul symbolises what she gives and receives in her relationship to Robert, and even though it is a real object which is traded, the metaphor implies of course an emotional exchange.

l. 3 and 4
This implicit game between the visible signs of her relationship, namely the letters and the curl of hair, vouching for the lovers’ invisible link, goes on lines 3 and 4. “From my poet’s forehead to my heart” = her concrete heart, since she later places the curl on her bosom, and of course her heart also means the feelings the gift of the curl triggered in her. A play on words then perpetuates the same parallel between material and emotional trade, with the curl being said to weight more than “argosies”. An argosy is a heavily laden merchant ship, and the poet is playing on the double meaning of the weight: the weight of the curl is driven from the value Elizabeth give it, and she compares it to the physical weight of a trading boat. We can see she uses concrete objects and ideas to try to represent her love.

l. 5-7

This work on metaphors, still in the same effort to give an idea of the strength of her love, takes a different shape from line 5: this second part dives into poetic mythological references to express Elizabeth’s emotional state as she receives this curl of hair. The poem summons the lexical field of ancient Greece through the terms “Pindar”, “Muse” and “bay crown”.  Elizabeth is first affirming, through the simile “as erst to Pindar’s eyes”, how time, and the history of poetry, can testify the strength of the effect the curl has on her. She thus compares herself to an ancient lyrical poet, and makes a simile between the Muses, everlasting symbols of poetic inspiration, and her own source of inspiration which are her feelings for Robert.

l. 7-9

This link between her lover and her inspiration is made lines 8 and 9, when she writes that the “bay crown” of the Muses (= laurel crown) are still casting a shadow on Robert’s curl, as it appears, because of the blackness of the hair; as if the curl was tinged with poetic inspiration itself. The reference to the Muses could also suggest that Time did not alter poetry and feelings, since this symbol from the past is said to leave a mark on the curl, a present-day object. Either way, this image implies that Elizabeth felt so much inspired, as she wrote theses lines, by the gift, that she compared it to the essence of artistic inspiration. Elizabeth’s work further shows a peculiar attention given to colour: we notice that the link made between Robert and the Muses, between past and present, is first made through their similar colour, a mix of purple and black: “purply black” l. 5, “dim purpureal tresses” l.6, “shade” l. 7, “so black” line 9.


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