The Sonnets from the Portuguese series outline the poet’s initial years of unhappiness before meeting her beloved, Robert Browning. It took a period of adjustment for her to accept that he truly loved her and that with him, she could live happily and companionably. ‘Sonnet 16′ is one of several in which she declares her love and admiration for her husband.
Sonnet 16 Elizabeth Barrett Browning And yet, because thou overcomest so, Because thou art more noble and like a king, Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow Too close against thine heart henceforth to know How it shook when alone. Why, conquering May prove as lordly and complete a thing In lifting upward, as in crushing low! And as a vanquished soldier yields his sword To one who lifts him from the bloody earth, Even so, Belovèd, I at last record, Here ends my strife. If thou invite me forth, I rise above abasement at the word. Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth.
Explore Sonnet 16
In the first part of the poem, the speaker declares that with her beloved’s love, she can overcome anything. She knows that he is going to protect her and help her live a happier life. As the sonnet progresses, the poet states that she is ready to dedicate herself to her newfound happiness and escape the sorrow of her past.
The main themes of this poem our love and transformation. Until Robert Browning came into her life, the poet lived sorrowfully and with the expectation that she would be alone for the rest of her life. It was hard for her to embrace the love Browning was willing to give her, but within the fourteen lines of this poem, she declares that she’s ready to leave the sadness and loneliness of her past behind.
Structure and Form
Browning consistently chose to use the standard rhyme scheme for the final six lines. That is: CDCDCD. It is the most common ending to this sonnet form. The poet’s use of iambic pentameter is also standard. It is usually used in sonnets of all forms and means that within each line, with a few exceptions, the poet uses five sets of two syllables. The first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “fears” and “fling” in line three and “heart henceforth” in line five.
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, the poet compares her situation to a vanquished soldier in the first part of the sestet.
- Caesura: an intentional pause in the middle of a line of verse. For example, “Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow.”
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the direct scope of the poem. In this case, readers will encounter allusions to the poet’s frame of mind in previous sonnets and to the poet’s real-life experience with her husband, Robert Browning.
And yet, because thou overcomest so,
Because thou art more noble and like a king,
Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling
Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow
In the first lines of the sonnet, the poet begins by saying that finally, she’s overcome her concerns regarding her relationship with her new lover, Robert Browning. Although she still sees him as far superior to herself, she can “prevail against” “fears” and trust in him. His actions have allowed her to put her faith in his devotion to her.
By referring to him as “more noble and like a king,” she’s also alluding to the imagery used in previous sonnets. For example, in ‘Sonnet 8’ where she used the colors purple and gold, commonly associated with royalty.
His royal powers protect her from heartbreak, even that she might inflict upon herself. She uses a metaphor, alluding to his symbolic purple keep that he puts around her shoulders and protects her.
Too close against thine heart henceforth to know
How it shook when alone. Why, conquering
May prove as lordly and complete a thing
In lifting upward, as in crushing low!
As the poet did in other sonnets in the series, she expresses amazement at the fact that she’s able to live so happily. She’s overcome a great deal of sorrow in her life and consistently wonders at the fact that she’s able to keep her heart so close to another person. It’s amazing to her that she ever felt so lonely.
Now, she can imagine herself living a happy life. The possibility of moving up and progressing in happiness and success is as real to her as her downward progression towards sorrow had previously been.
And as a vanquished soldier yields his sword
To one who lifts him from the bloody earth,
Even so, Beloved, I at last record,
Here ends my strife. If thou invite me forth,
I rise above abasement at the word.
Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth.
The poet is, like a vanquished soldier, yielding her fear and trepidation. She surrenders to her new relationship after all of her fears have been defeated.
In the last lines of the poem, the poet specifically directs her words to her “beloved.” She says that “here” ends her strife if he invites her forward into a life that they can live together.
From now on, she will embrace her rise from a life of sorrow, and, by letting Robert Browning’s love in, she will make herself a more worthy person. By having him around her, she feels she is improving herself.
The tone is accepting and passionate. From the first line of the sonnet, the speaker’s dedication to her lover, who she refers to as her “beloved,” is very clear. But, unlike in other sonnets from the series, Browning uses an accepting tone to finally embrace the fact that Robert Browning loves her.
The purpose is to express the speaker’s love for her beloved and declare herself finally ready to accept his dedication to her. She’s going to give into happiness and fully embark on a mission to raise herself out of the world of sorrow she had been living in.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an English poet born in March 1806. Her first major collection, The Seraphim and Other Poems was published in 1838. The next collection, Poems, was released in 1844; it was around this time that she met her future husband, Robert Browning. Today, she’s best known for her love sonnets, Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Browning’s best-known poem is ‘How Do I Love Thee,’ also known as ‘Sonnet 43.’ It is one of the many sonnets in her Sonnets from the Portuguese series and is dedicated to her husband, Robert Browning, and the love the two share.
The message is that one can only find happiness after fully accepting the happiness that comes into their life. Up until this point, the poet was reluctant to give herself over to the love that Robert Browning was bringing to her life. It’s only in these 14 lines that she commits to allowing herself to break away from her sorrow.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems. For example:
- ‘The Cry of the Children’ – is a moving poem that explores the terrors of child labor and those who suffer it.
- ‘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.
- ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ – describes the experiences of a speaker trapped on board a ship at sea.