“Let the world’s sharpness…” Sonnets from the Portuguese (XXIV) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

let the world’s sharpness” is a is a Petrachan sonnet, also known as an Italian sonnet. It is composed of an octave (two groups of four lines), rhyming ABBAABBA, and a sestet (two groups of three lines). Unlike a Shakespearean sonnet, the Italian sonnet does not close with a couplet, instead, the second half of the poem gives a resolution to the first. In this particular sonnet Browning takes full advantage of the “question and answer” format. The question is, how will the world cure its own “sharpness” and the answer is through the Love that comes from God. 

 

Summary of “Let the world’s sharpness” (Sonnet 24)

“Let the world’s sharpness” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a Petrarchan sonnet that proposes a resolution to the world’s strife— all turn to, and accept, Love. 

The poem begins with the speaker comparing the end of the world’s problems with the action of closing a “clasping knife.” The blade, or the terrors of the world, is now out of reach and cannot do harm to anyone. The hand that closed this knife belongs to Love. Or as later made clear, the hand of God’s love. The speaker of this piece then turns to a companion, who is to her an embodiment of all that God’s love can do, and speaks of her trust and faith in this person. She believes she will be guarded against the “worldlings.” Those who would seek to do other’s harm for their own benefit. The poem concludes with the speaker promoting the love that God fosters and the strength he has to control life and death. No man will be able to change the world in the way that God’s love is able to.

 

Analysis of “Let the world’s sharpness” (Sonnet 24)

Lines 1-5

Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife,

Shut in upon itself and do no harm

In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm,

And let us hear no sound of human strife

Browning begins this piece by having her speaker declare a new state for the world. All of the world’s sharpness, it’s strife, hate, and violence, is to be closed up and put away. She compares this closing to that of a “clasping knife” which is shut so that it may “do no harm.” 

The speaker hopes to find a solution to every “sharp” problem that the planet is facing and close them all up in “this…hand of Love.” The speaker believes that it is “Love,” and the positive sway it can have over a population, that is going to change the world. Love will be able to take the negative aspects of existence, “Shut [them] in upon [themselves],” and put them away. 

The “hand of Love” is said to be “soft and warm.” It is a place of safety and happiness in which all can exist peacefully. 

Once love has taken over all aspects of life, “we” will no longer hear any sound of “human strife.” The door to negativity will be shut and forever closed with a “click” of the “clasping knife.” 

 

Lines 5-9 

After the click of the shutting. Life to life –

I lean upon thee, Dear, without alarm,

And feel as safe as guarded by a charm

Against the stab of worldlings, who if rife

The sonnet continues into the next quartet of lines. The speaker turns to a listener to whom the rest of the poem is directed towards. She speaks to her companion saying that all throughout time, “Life to life” she has depended on this unknown person. She or he has always been there for her to “lean upon” when she is in need and she is never fearful of being dropped. She is, “without alarm,” feeling as if she is guarded by some kind of protective charm when she is around this person. 

This listener clearly has a great impact on the speaker. His or her, “charm” is said to ward against “the stab of worldings.” This word, “wordling” refers to all those that exist for worldly pleasures alone. These types have no regard to spiritual or emotional pleasure, and presumably, take what they want when they want. The “worldings” are those that the speaker believes have caused all the strife and horror that exists in the world. If these people are “rife,” meaning in this context, “unchecked” they will without impunity, injure those around them. They are “weak” and give into violence easily.” 

It is exactly this attitude and way of life that the speaker is depending on “Love” to take away. 

 

Lines 9-14 

Are weak to injure. Very whitely still

The lilies of our lives may reassure

Their blossoms from their roots, accessible

Alone to heavenly dews that drop not fewer,

Growing straight, out of man’s reach, on the hill.

God only, who made us rich, can make us poor.

The sonnet concludes in the next few lines as the speaker reassures herself and those listening that it is God only who can “make us poor.” No matter what goes on in the rest of the worlds, there will be Love and that love is God who is in control and watching over everything that one does. It is most likely that the listener in the second sestet of lines in God. Although it is not made clear, and the speaker refers to him as, “Dear,” this person seems to serve a similar purpose. 

The speaker is inspired to these thoughts of God’s strength through the image of a lily flower. Although lilies are often used as symbols of death and mourning, they are also pure white. They are, as the speaker says, “Very whitely still…” even though there is strife in the world. In this piece the lily is representative of the connection between life and death. They are part of both worlds but also “out of man’s reach.” The speaker wants to make clear that it will be Love, through God, that saves the planet, not any single act by man. The human race is connected through our equal relationship with life and death, something in which all may come together and celebrate— with God leading the way. 

 

About Elizabeth Barrett Browning 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born in 1806 in Durham, England. She was the first born out of twelve children, was educated at home through the works of Milton and Shakespeare. She also began writing poetry at a young age, finishing her first epic poem at the age of twelve. Browning also suffered from a number of maladies from a young age, particularly a lung ailment for which she took morphine for the rest of her life. As a teenager Browning taught herself Hebrew, and studied Greek classics. 

It was in 1826 the Browning anonymously published her first collection, An Essay on Mind and Other Poems. During this time period Browning’s family suffered financial troubles and ended up settling in London. In the 1830’s Browning first started getting attention for her work. She wrote The Seraphim and Other Poems in 1838 through which she expressed traditional Christian beliefs, which were very dear to her, through Greek tragedies. 

The following years of Browning’s life were filled with illness and loss. She spent a year living with her brother Edward at the sea of Torquay. Edward died while sailing there and Browning returned home, living as a recluse for the next five years. in 1844 she published Poems and she met the writer Robert Browning. The two began a romance that was opposed by Elizabeth’s father, eloping in 1846. The collection that is generally considered her best work, Sonnets from the Portuguese, was published in 1850. After publishing a number of works about social injustice, Elizabeth died in Florence in 1861. 

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