‘Grief’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a fourteen line poem that conforms to the pattern of a Petrarchan sonnet. This means that within the fourteen lines the text can be separated into two sets of four lines, or quatrains, and one set of six, or sestet. The poem also has a consistent, traditional rhyming pattern of abba cddc efgefg. To complete the Petrarchan sonnet form, the text is written in iambic pentameter. Each line contains five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed.
It is thought that this piece was written shortly after the drowning of Browning’s brother, Edward. The following years of her life were filled with grief. She spent a great deal of time trying to recover from the loss but never truly gained back her strength. It was first published in Barrett Browning’s 1844, two-volume collection, Poems.
The most important theme of this piece is grief, and the forms it can take. It is clear from the beginning of the text that Barrett Browning is going to pass judgement on what grief looks and feels like. Having experienced a great deal of it herself over the previous years this poem seems to be an outpouring of what she learned. The basic outline of her assertion is that grief is not seen through great demonstrations of weeping and sobbing. Instead it turns one into a desert. The sufferer becomes “like a statue / set in everlasting watch and moveless woe.”
Summary of Grief
‘Grief’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning tells of the necessary conditions for feeling true grief and the way it transforms one’s body and soul.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that those who throw up their arms and wail do not truly grieve. They are without the ability to feel true despair. Rather, it is those who express no passion who are truly hurting. She counts herself among them. The speaker goes on to describe how in grief one’s soul becomes like a desert and their body like a statue. There is nothing to remove them from this state. in fact, it gets worse every day as the sun (their troubles) beats down on them. In conclusion, she tells the reader that only when one can “weep” will their grief be relieved.
Analysis of Grief
I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
In the fist lines of this piece the speaker begins by directing her words towards a specific listener. This could simply be the reader, or someone more personal to Barrett Browning’s own experience. She tells this person that “hopeless grief is passionless.” This is a great all encompassing statement defining how she feels about the emotion.
The speaker does not believe that those who are truly griefing will “Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access.” No one who is as deeply depressed as she has been will wailing and cry over hat has happened. The only people who do this are unable to actually feel despair. They do not know depths the emotion can reach.
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,
In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
In the next quatrain the speaker describes what real grief is like. This is what resides inside of her, meaning that she can depict it in clear and effective detail. Her spirit, or soul, is like a desert. It has been drained of all its life and left “silent-bare” to roast under the “blanching” eye of the heavens. The sun, or reminders of the reason for grieving, beat down constantly, only worsening the situation.
Due to the sun’s position in the sky there is no escape from its gaze. This is one of the most important parts of Barrett Browning’s description. True despair is not something one can express and then be rid of. It resides above and within one for the rest of time.
Grief for thy dead in silence like to death—
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:
If it could weep, it could arise and go.
In the final six lines the speaker talks directly to the “Deep-hearted man.” This person has the capacity, unlike the people in the first lines, to feel true pain. She tells him that he must grieve in a silence like death. Only those who are compelled to do so feel as she feels.
In the next lines she refers to the griever as a statue. They become hardened to the rest of the world, even things that once brought them pleasure. If this person were to touch their “marble eyelids” they would find there are no tears. This relates directly back to the first section in which those who cry are condemned as fakers. It is because of one’s inability to cry that the grief persists. As soon as “it could weep” the grief could “arise and go.”