from ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’, Elizabeth Barrett Browning
selected by Anthony Astbury
Greville Press Pamphlets, 2019 £7.50
The certainty of metre and form
Sometimes all I want is this — poems from past centuries with their certain rhythms. I was always bound to love this pamphlet.
I love everything about it. It’s the perfect size for the hand and for carrying around. The simple cover — the delicate blue and grey coloured text on the front, the small image of the poet on the back, eyes turned towards the reader — all of this complements but also contrasts well with the strong sonnets inside.
Fourteen sonnets, carefully chosen, guide the reader through some of the forty-four Sonnets from the Portuguese. Reading and re-reading this selection is the perfect way of absorbing them, and perhaps later tracking down the full sequence. Before this, I only knew two poems by this poet and that was because of their appearance in various anthologies (other people's choices). This makes me realise the great value of this pamphlet.
I love the strong imagery present in some. Sonnet X burns with a passion (‘love is fire’), before giving an outright declaration of love: ‘I love thee . . . mark! . . . I love thee!’
The imagery becomes stronger still in XXVIII:
My letters! all dead paper, . . . mute and white! —
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which loose the string
And let them drop down on my knee to-night.
As for XXIX, it startles me. I wonder why I’ve not come across it before:
I think of thee! — my thoughts do twine and bud
About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,
Put out broad leaves, and soon there’s nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
What follows in XXIX is even stranger, in terms of the intricate extended metaphor of vegetation, and the way it is suddenly stripped back.
The closing poem of the pamphlet (XLIII) explores the question ‘How do I love thee?’ This the most anthologised one, and perhaps contains Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s best known lines. Its rhythmic, rhetorical structure builds the intensity phrase by phrase, with the precision of perfect formal measure. On reaching ‘I love thee with a love I seemed to lose / With my lost saints’, I had the sense that I had always known these words, though in fact I had almost completely forgotten them. Is it because I read more deeply now? Maybe, but something new draws me now.
This is a pamphlet I’ll treasure.