‘My Heart and I’ is a dark poem in which Browning depicts the distress a newly widowed woman goes through after the death of her husband in the 19th century. During this period, women were seen as an extension of the men they married. Therefore, if the man died, these women were left rudderless without the ability to take care of themselves. Not because they were incapable of doing so, but because of societal norms.
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Summary of My Heart and I
Throughout this poem, the speaker describes for the reader, and sometimes for her heart, how she’s feeling. She repeats the word “tired” numerous times throughout the poem, never letting the reader forget her broader emotional and mental experience. She looks back on how her life used to be, and it makes the present all the more painful. The speaker even admits that she’d rather be dead than continue on through her life as she has to without her husband.
Themes in My Heart and I
Browning engages primarily with themes of loss and life’s purpose in ‘My Heart and I.’ Throughout, the speaker makes no secret of the fact that she’s at a loss with what to do with her life now that her husband has died. It’s not just that she lost this man. She’s also lost the structure that’s required for a woman to live well in the 19th century. She spends the poem at his grave, wishing that she could be the one in the ground rather than him. She’s too tired and depressed to go on with her life any longer, and there does not seem to be anything that could tempt her to try to return to society.
Structure and Form of My Heart and I
‘My Heart and I’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a seven-stanza poem that is separated into sets of seven lines. The lines follow an interesting and somewhat unusual rhyme scheme of ABBACCA. There are a few moments, such as in stanzas one and three, in which the center “A” sound does not rhyme perfectly with that at the end of lines one and seven. This is known as a half-rhyme. For example, “tenderly” in stanza one and “indifferently” in stanza three. Interestingly enough, though, these two words rhyme, creating a new connection between the stanzas.
Literary Devices in My Heart and I
Browning makes use of several literary devices in ‘My Heart and I.’ These include but are not limited to apostrophe, juxtaposition, imagery, and enjambment. The latter is a formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. It ends, and a reader has to go down to the next line to find out what happens next. For example, the transition between lines four and five of the first stanza as well as lines three and four of the third stanza.
Juxtaposition is another interesting device that’s used in ‘My Heart and I.’ It appears throughout the poem as the poet remembers what her world was like before and tries to reconcile it with what it’s like now. She used to have love, support, and structure in her life. But now, since her husband died, her life is nothing but exhausting and purposeless.
An apostrophe is an address by the speaker of a poem to something or someone that cannot hear them and/or cannot respond. In this case, at the end of the poem, the speaker talks to her heart.
Imagery is another important device used in poems. If used fully and interestingly, poems with good imagery as usually the most memorable. The best imagery asks the readers to engage multiple senses so that they are able to imaging seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching the scenes the poet presents. For example, line three from the second stanza reads: “And in our own blood drenched the pen,” or lines three and four of stanza five read: “To fold me close and kiss me warm / Till each quick breath end in a sigh.”
Analysis of My Heart and I
ENOUGH ! we’re tired, my heart and I.
We sit beside the headstone thus,
And wish that name were carved for us.
The moss reprints more tenderly
The hard types of the mason’s knife,
As heaven’s sweet life renews earth’s life
With which we’re tired, my heart and I.
In the first lines of ‘My Heart and I,’ the speaker tells the reader that someone, who’s revealed to be her husband, has died. She’s sitting beside his gravestone, wishing that she was dead in his place. Despite looking around and knowing that there’s value in staying alive, as “heaven’s sweet life renews earth’s life,” she still wants to die.
Her life, as she sees it, has come to an end. Without her husband, as a 19th-century woman, she is without a purpose. There are some interesting juxtapositions in this stanza between the “tender” movement of the moss and the “hard types” of the mason’s knife. There is also the contrast between the world the speaker used to know and that which she inhabits now. The fact that the first word of the poem, “Enough,” ends with an exclamation make is all the reader really needs to feel the speaker’s distress.
You see we’re tired, my heart and I.
We dealt with books, we trusted men,
And in our own blood drenched the pen,
As if such colours could not fly.
We walked too straight for fortune’s end,
We loved too true to keep a friend ;
At last we’re tired, my heart and I.
The second stanza makes it clear that the first and last lines of every stanza are going to be quite similar. The words “tired” and “my heart and I” are repeated each time. There are slight differences, such as saying “at last” or “how” or “You see.” The speaker uses the lines of this stanza to declare that there’s nothing left in the world for her. Because she and her heart “trusted men” and put her life in a man’s hands, she has nothing of her own.
Although it’s easy to read distress in regards to a woman’s role in these lines from a contemporary perspective, the speaker is only mourning the fact that now there’s nothing left for her. She was consumed by her “love” and could “keep a friend.” Now her heart is worn out, and she doesn’t want to take on any more sorrow.
How tired we feel, my heart and I !
We seem of no use in the world ;
Our fancies hang grey and uncurled
About men’s eyes indifferently ;
Our voice which thrilled you so, will let
You sleep; our tears are only wet :
What do we here, my heart and I ?
By this point, the word “tired” is firmly drilled into the reader’s mind. It’s easy to see why she does feel tired, as, in the next lines, she states clearly that she seems of “no use in the world.” Her appearance, or ‘fancies,” are “grey” and unkept in front of men’s eyes. There’s no one else who would love her as her deceased husband did. She doesn’t know what she and her tired heart are supposed to do next.
So tired, so tired, my heart and I !
It was not thus in that old time
When Ralph sat with me ‘neath the lime
To watch the sunset from the sky.
Dear love, you’re looking tired,’ he said;
I, smiling at him, shook my head :
‘Tis now we’re tired, my heart and I.
The fourth stanza includes a memory from the past before her husband, Ralph, died. She remembers a time the two were sitting together outside watching the sunset, and her husband told her that she looked tired. No, she remembers, she wasn’t tired then, she’s tired now. This memory is a great example of a flash into the past that is, in the end, going to make the speaker more depressed. As she dwells on what used to be, she’s never going to be able to move forward. This “old-time” is out of reach now.
So tired, so tired, my heart and I !
Though now none takes me on his arm
To fold me close and kiss me warm
Till each quick breath end in a sigh
Of happy languor. Now, alone,
We lean upon this graveyard stone,
Uncheered, unkissed, my heart and I.
She’s “alone,” she says, with no one to take her on their arm and hold her close and “kiss” her “warm.” These are things she desperately misses, and, as a woman in the 19th century, a way of referring to the relationship she needs to have a good life in the world. She returns to the image of the gravestone in the sixth line while thinking about her mind and her lips, “Uncheered, unkissed,” she says.
Tired out we are, my heart and I.
Suppose the world brought diadems
To tempt us, crusted with loose gems
Of powers and pleasures ? Let it try.
We scarcely care to look at even
A pretty child, or God’s blue heaven,
We feel so tired, my heart and I.
The speaker considers if there’s anything the world could do to bring her back from her sorrow. She doesn’t think there is. She considers “diadems,” or gemstones, usually associated with royal crowns, and thinks that they wouldn’t tempt her. Nor would she be rejuvenated by the “powers and pleasures” that could come with such a gift. These beautiful things are impossible for her. She can’t even look at a “pretty child or God’s blue heaven,” she adds. There’s no way she could take pleasure in a gemstone.
Yet who complains ? My heart and I ?
In this abundant earth no doubt
Is little room for things worn out :
Disdain them, break them, throw them by
And if before the days grew rough
We once were loved, used, — well enough,
I think, we’ve fared, my heart and I.
In the final stanza, she starts out with two questions, suggesting that there’s no one there to mourn with her or hear her mourn aside from her heart. She believes that the earth has no room for redundant women like her. She’s a worn-out thing that needs to be thrown out. The poem concludes with the speaker reminding her heart, and herself, that she was “once” loved, and now her life has come to an end.
Readers who enjoyed ‘My Heart and I’ should also consider reading some of Browning’s other best-known poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 14: If thou must love me’ – presents the speaker’s ideas on how she wants to be loved and remembered. She wants a love that’s going to last through eternity rather than one that’s based on her appearance.
- ‘Patience Taught by Nature’ – was published in 1845 and spoke about heaven, a different kind of world where God resides, and human problems don’t exist.
- ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese 24’ – is also known as ‘Let the World’s Sharpness.’ It is a sonnet in which the speaker compares the world’s problems to the closing of a knife.
- ‘Died’ – was published after Browning’s death and also explores the impact of a man’s death and the immorality of passing judgments on someone who passed away.