Readers familiar with Shakespeare will see a lot that is similar in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 29, otherwise known as ‘I think of thee’, from her publication ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’, which was written circa 1845-1846 and published in 1850. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote it as a collection of a total of 44 love sonnets, which became very popular during her time, and have been immortalized in numerous quotations; in fact, one of the most common quotes – ‘how do I love thee, let me count the ways’ – though often attributed to Shakespeare, is actually a line from Sonnet 43 of the same collection.
Before delving into the meaning before Sonnet 29, and the titling of the collection, it is perhaps a good idea to look at the history of the sonnet. The sonnet is a specific poetic form, invented in Italy somewhere around 1235, by a man known as Giacomo da Lentini, who headed the Sicilian School, a small group of Italian poets that performed in the court of Fredrick II. Their primary performances concerned poems of what was then known as ‘courtly love’ – love between a noblewoman and a knight, for example; unattainable and wholly chaste love. Contemporary to him was the most famous Italian sonneteer of the time, Petrarca (Petrarch) whose form and style became known as the Petrarchan sonnet.
Sonnets always have fourteen lines, split into two quatrains, two tercets, and a volta in the ninth line – a move from the earlier proposition to the resolution. The ABBA pattern was, for a very long time, the standard for Italian sonnets, followed by CDE or CDC.
The most famous sonneteer in all of history is probably William Shakespeare, who wrote beautiful love sonnets using Iambic pentameter, and it is worth pointing this out because Robert Barrett Browning – Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s husband, also a poet, and arguably better known than his wife due to a history of erasure – actually thought that his wife’s poems were as good as, if not better, some of Shakespeare’s finest work, and convinced her to publish the collection himself; before that, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was against the idea of publishing it, until her husband coaxed her to do so. It is not farfetched to understand where Robert Barrett Browning attained the idea of similarities between Shakespeare and his wife’s work; although Shakespeare has a very distinctive way of writing, some of Barrett Browning’s sonnets do follow a particularly Shakespearean twist.
That being said, at Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s time, sonnets were considered an outdated form of poetry.
Explore Sonnet 29 - 'I think of thee!'
Sonnets, typically, read like a monologue, a heart-to-heart between the heart where the reader is privy to the narrator’s struggles to enunciate how clearly they love the object of their affections, and Barrett Browning’s work is no different. It is a celebration of love, a reiteration of love, a reckless abandonment of the tenets of restraint and silence (remember that Barrett Browning was writing in the Victorian era, where women were not expected to have very strong emotions, and definitely not expected to write love poetry of such an intimate nature! It was scarcely accepted for men to do so, let alone women) to shout out to everyone about their love, in this case, husband-to-be Robert Barrett Browning.
It follows a simple rhyme scheme of ABBCCDDEFGFGFG, which leans more towards the Italian style than the English style, thus having a turn around the eighth or ninth line that moves Sonnet 29 from proposition to solution. It is interesting to note that though the language is very reminiscent of Shakespeare, one would have trouble reading this in iambic pentameter, as the stresses don’t slot into place as easily as one would expect.
Sonnet 29 is a passionate lamentation from Elizabeth to her husband (we can assume that, knowing the history and provenance of the poem and the collection), who tells him that he is always on her mind.
Analysis of Sonnet 29 – ‘I think of thee!’
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.
Many sonnet poems were written from the heart, and so there are no names mentioned; the reader has to guess, through history, and other fragments of information, where that affection is stemming from, and whom it is aimed towards; this is the same for this sonnet, which opens with the line ‘thee’, and explains ‘I think of thee! – my thoughts do twine and bud’.
We can safely assume that the ‘thee’ in Sonnet 29 refers to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s husband-to-be, Robert Browning, though ‘thee’ itself, as a word on its own, is an intimate, but an intimate version of ‘you’. At the time, no-one in Victorian England used the formal ‘thee’, and so its usage in this poem is a bit strange; however, it works with the rhyme scheme, and with the general feel of the poem as a bit dated. One might wonder why Barrett Browning – given that she was writing in a period of time shortly following the Romantics – would have gone for such an outmoded form of poetry to declare her affections; it may be likely that, though the Romantics were, in essence, very much in love with love, there is very little poetic form that can overcome the sonnet for pure affection. One cannot use ‘you’ with the same closeness; to rewrite the line with that immediately removes some of the affection and the intimacy from Sonnet 29.
‘Thee’ implies a particular person, one close enough to be addressed by it; ‘you’, on the other hand, could mean any layman of the poetess’ acquaintance. It is therefore infinitely more possible that the use of the poetic sonnet as part and parcel to marshall and explain and to show off her feelings is accurate.
‘My thoughts do twine and bud / About thee, as wild fines, about a tree’ – this may be a holdover from the style of the Romantics; they were very much in awe of nature (some can argue that they were also in awe of people, but it is the natural world that interested the bulk majority of the Romantics, even though they wrote it into history as a tragic victim); note the use of almost-archaic language, the unrestrained imagery; it brings to mind an almost verbal approximation of old ‘bodice-ripper’ novels. There is something wild and uncontrolled about this particular phrase; something almost sexual about the way she writes about her thoughts. ‘Twine’ can easily have connotations of physical affection; one need not go into the etymology of the idea of ‘bud’ to understand that, although it is courtly love, although it is a very romantic poem, one can also read it through a lens of sexual desire (this is not uncommon, especially for Victorian-era poetry).
Put out broad leaves, and soon there ‘s nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
Here, Barrett Browning shows how her emotions – her thoughts – have been completely subsumed, taken over, by this man; ‘soon there’s nought to see’, she writes, thus extrapolating that the thoughts of Robert Browning have completely erased everything else from her mind; he is the only thing that matters in that moment, he is the only thing that is given vent to her feelings. There is so much love in this stanza that it almost feels criminal to read it ourselves, as though the reader is somehow taking a peek into a theatre meant only for two – and in a way, that is exactly what this is. Barrett Browning, although she published them, never intended these to be seen by anyone but her husband-to-be, Robert Browning, and thus throughout Sonnet 29, there is a constant feeling that the reader is intruding on something that is completely beyond their comprehension. It is all well to consider that, perhaps, this form of poetry is overwrought and a little bit ‘missing-the-wood-for-the-trees’, that it is nearly theatrical in its idealism, but that is only because there is only a fraction of the population who can read this poem and understand what Barrett Browning means when she says these things; people who have been in love before would recognize it, but people who haven’t would find it difficult to put together their experiences with the experiences that Barrett Browning is talking about.
Therefore, this is not wholly a poem for public consumption, and we get the sense that by the end of the first stanza; the depth of the feelings that are shown in the words only scratch the surface of what Elizabeth Barrett Browning feels and believes for her husband-to-be. This also explains why Elizabeth Barrett Browning published the poems with the explanation that they were translated from Portuguese.
Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood
I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly
Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,
When reading Sonnet 29 as a whole, one might be struck by the apparent awe with which Elizabeth Barrett Browning is struck – notice, for example, in this stanza; ‘yet, o my palm-tree, be it understood / I will not have my thoughts instead of thee’; it is almost as though she can’t believe her own luck in finding love, in her own feelings.
The comparison to a ‘palm-tree’ once again brings up allusions of Keats, the master of the poetic sensual, of the animalistic in nature; a palm-tree, as well, is a very sturdy tree, exotic to the British islands, and one would assume that Elizabeth Barrett Browning has chosen it specifically because it is a very sturdy pine tree, because it is considered to be one of the strongest trees, because for the Romans it was a symbol of victory, and because it is also a religious symbol – for Christians, the palm tree denotes Palm Sunday, where Jesus’ followers laid palm tree branches underneath the hooves of his donkey as he rode into Jerusalem, a practice which today has become the carrying of palm fronds in hands from the local church, to home (this is one of many traditions).
It is perhaps worth pointing out here that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was quite religious, and uses religious language, especially in this poem; the same nature of the sublime that was present earlier, the nature of wild romanticism, carries with it an overtone of religious devotion; it is almost as if she worships Barrett Browning, as if he has become a religious figure to her, that he is necessary to her belief system. This is keeping in line with the overzealous and theatrical nature of dramatic poetry, though one would perhaps find it difficult to believe such rampant emotions (it is easy to believe that Barrett Browning could be merely exaggerating her affections primarily in keeping with the poem, but one would doubt this; there is a feeling of genuine adoration threaded throughout Sonnet 29 in such a way that it would be difficult to mimic, particularly when talking about such heavy things. This is also in keeping with the tradition of courtly love – part of the genre style was the idea of chastity, of the woman one was in love with (usually a noble lady) having never been touched, and somehow being a God-given gift, or an angel, or some other branch of religious symbolism; it is still an outdated form of affection, but understandable in keeping with both Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s personal beliefs, the period of time in which she was writing – the Victorians were very religious themselves – and also the historical aspect of her poem.
‘I will not have my thoughts instead of thee’ – again, the use of the intimate ‘you’ to denote so many strong feelings, though what is particularly interesting in this phrase is the almost pleading way she writes it, as if there has ever been a competition between her thoughts and the presence of Robert Browning. One can take this in several different ways – that she might have a tendency to lose herself in daydreams, that she might not always be available to meet and so supplements his existence with daydreams – but one can also look at it from a political-intellectual sort of view. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an intellectual, one of the most influential women poets of the era, writing at a time where women poets were not given the respect that they could have been given; where female novelists were pushed aside and occasionally lauded, but half the time their work brushed off as silly and feminine. There is, therefore, a vulnerability in this phrase – ‘I will not have my thoughts instead of thee’, Barrett Browning writes, and for an intellectual women living in an era where intellectual women had to fight for their recognition, it is, perhaps, the strongest declaration of her love in Sonnet 29; that Robert Browning is perhaps far stronger than her intellect, far stronger than her thoughts, that he comes forward and first at every time.
This is, of course, pulling on the idea of courtly love, but one can take it quite literally. She continues the thought by saying that Robert Browning is ‘dearer, better’, worth more than her thoughts, worth more than anything she has in her heart.
When she sees him, she writes in the next couple of lines, she falls in love with him over and over again – every time he ‘renews thy presence’, her emotions for him become stronger and stronger, ‘as a strong tree should’ – the meaning of this can also be taken to mean that Robert Barrett Browning almost makes her fall in love with him over and over again; that he asserts his rights to her feelings, and refuses to be shunted to one side, or waylaid by her thoughts. He is real, he is there, and thus Elizabeth Barrett Browning makes as much room for him in her heart as she can possibly can.
It is worth pointing out that this is still carrying the metaphor from the first few lines, and that metaphor is that she cannot control her thoughts; she is a wild creature, in this poem, who loves, and loves, and loves, without end.
Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee
Drop heavily down,—burst, shattered, everywhere!
Once more, the imagery here starts peaceful, but also slightly overwhelming – Elizabeth Barrett Browning instructs her lover to ‘rustle thy boughs’ and ‘set thy trunk all bare’, a meaning which perhaps cannot be wholly understood on its own, and needs further reading to determine, but one can take it as Elizabeth Barrett Browning insisting that Robert Barrett Browning be – present, and obvious, and masculine, forceful about his love for her; she wants him to appear as he is (‘set thy trunk all bare’), and to make her look at him rather than take refuge in her thoughts.
Then again, one can also take the meaning of it to be literal, and thus very erotic – ‘rustle thy boughs’ can be taken to mean a physical display of force; ‘set thy trunk all bare’ can be taken as an invitation for Robert Barrett Browning to forcibly move her thoughts to him rather than to her idle imaginings. One can take it further, and consider her phrasing as wholly erotic, but it would perhaps be reading far too deeply into Sonnet 29.
‘Drop heavily down – burst, shattered, everywhere’, writes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, again carrying on the imagery from the previous sentence, where she is actively imploring him to turn her thoughts towards him, where she is almost begging him to keep her from thinking and just thinking; she wants to experience Robert Barrett Browning in the flesh, to not think of him as a mere fantasy, and to genuinely enjoy his presence. There is an almost violent element to the phrase ‘drop heavily down’; there’s a sense that he has changed almost everything in her life, that he has become the fulcrum around which her life now revolves (this is, however, just going off the words of Sonnet 29, and not reading into their private lives, or anything along those lines).
Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
I do not think of thee—I am too near thee
The heavy, forceful tone does not end in the previous stanza but carries on until the final part of Sonnet 29. Here, Elizabeth Barrett Browning insists again that she will not only have thoughts of him – she refuses to exist in daydreams only when he is a real person – she will also be ‘near thee’; thus, to carry on the point from the previous stanza, she expects Robert Barrett Browning to pull her from her thoughts, to remind her that he is living, that she does not need to rely only on daydreams, but can attain his presence even in real life. This is the ultimate beauty of the poem: whereas sonnets of old were all about longing and loving from affair, at the end of Sonnet 29, Elizabeth Barrett Browning reiterates the reason why she is writing this poem: she loves Robert Barrett Browning, and he loves her as well, and at the end, she gets to have him, to be with him. Other romantic sonnets did not have this – or, it should be stated, the tradition of the sonnet was for a chaste and unrequited love, and nothing quite as passionate and wanting as this poem.
Therefore, though it is, at its core, a sonnet, it moves away from the tenets of sonnets to give the reader something hopeful – at the end, it does not matter how many daydreams and romantic words are placed in verse on the page, there is something real behind it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is not longing, or dreaming from afar, or thinking up complicated daydreams, but reveling in being in love – and that is why her collection, ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese,’ have remained much-quoted and loved to this very day.
The title ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ stem from two things: one, Elizabeth Barrett Browning thought that the poems themselves were too personal to put her name on, and so pretended that the poems were a translation of some work in Portuguese; the selection of Portuguese itself as the language was probably due to her husband, who reputedly called her ‘my little Portuguese’ as an affectionate nickname.
Here, she explains the delay in her publication of the poems:
All this delay, because I happened early to say something against putting one’s love into verse: then again, I said something else on the other side . . . and next morning she said hesitatingly “Do you know I once wrote some poems about you?” — and then — “There they are, if you care to see them.” . . . How I see the gesture, and hear the tones . . . Afterward the publishing them was through me . . . there was a trial at covering it a little by leaving out one sonnet which had plainly a connexion with the former works: but it was put in afterwards when people chose to pull down the mask which, in old days, people used to respect at a masquerade. But I never cared. [qtd. in Mermin 359].
The above quotation was taken from The Victorian Web, a resourceful website all about the politics, culture, and daily life of the Victorians, including influential poets and writers.