Void in Law by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

‘Void in Law’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning depicts the scuffle many Victorian women endured after getting married. The woman has been left alone with no real resources by a husband who prefers to spend time with his mistress.

This powerful and complicated poem is written from the perspective of a woman who’s been betrayed by her husband and is conveying her emotions to her very young child. The speaker feels a great deal of pain and appears to be continually weeping when she thinks about what’s happened. She’s not sure what she’s going to do, but she does believe that her husband still belongs to her. 

Void in Law
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I
Sleep, little babe, on my knee,
Sleep, for the midnight is chill,
And the moon has died out in the tree,
And the great human world goeth ill.
Sleep, for the wicked agree:
Sleep, let them do as they will.
Sleep.

II
Sleep, thou hast drawn from my breast
The last drop of milk that was good;
And now, in a dream, suck the rest,
Lest the real should trouble thy blood.
Suck, little lips dispossessed,
As we kiss in the air whom we would.
Sleep.

III
O lips of thy father! the same,
So like! Very deeply they swore
When he gave me his ring and his name,
To take back, I imagined, no more!
And now is all changed like a game,
Though the old cards are used as of yore?
Sleep.

IV
“Void in law,” said the Courts. Something wrong
In the forms? Yet, “Till death part us two,
I, James, take thee, Jessie,” was strong,
And ONE witness competent. True
Such a marriage was worth an old song,
Heard in Heaven though, as plain as the New.
Sleep.

V
Sleep, little child, his and mine!
Her throat has the antelope curve,
And her cheek just the color and line
Which fade not before him nor swerve:
Yet she has no child!—the divine
Seal of right upon loves that deserve.
Sleep.

VI
My child! though the world take her part,
Saying “She was the woman to choose,
He had eyes, was a man in his heart,”—
We twain the decision refuse:
We . . weak as I am, as thou art, . .
Cling on to him, never to loose.
Sleep.

VII
He thinks that, when done with this place,
All’s ended? he’ll new-stamp the ore?
Yes, Cæsar’s2 —but not in our case.
Let him learn we are waiting before
The grave’s mouth, the heaven’s gate, God’s face,
With implacable love evermore.
Sleep.

VIII
He’s ours, though he kissed her but now;
He’s ours, though she kissed in reply;
He’s ours, though himself disavow,
And God’s universe favor the lie;
Ours to claim, ours to clasp, ours below,
Ours above, . . if we live, if we die.
Sleep.

IX
Ah baby, my baby, too rough
Is my lullaby? What have I said?
Sleep! When I’ve wept long enough
I shall learn to weep softly instead,
And piece with some alien stuff
My heart to lie smooth for thy head.
Sleep.

X
Two souls met upon thee, my sweet;
Two loves led thee out to the sun:
Alas, pretty hands, pretty feet,
If the one who remains (only one)
Set her grief at thee, turned in a heat
To thine enemy,—were it well done?
Sleep.

XI
May He of the manger stand near
And love thee! An infant He came
To His own who rejected Him here,
But the Magi brought gifts all the same.
I hurry the cross on my Dear!
My gifts are the griefs I declaim!
Sleep.
Void in Law by Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Summary 

‘Void in Law’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is an emotional poem that explores a betrayed woman’s suffering. 

At the beginning of the poem, the speaker repetitively tells her child to go to sleep and find peace, escaping from the cruelties of reality. The cruel world is something she understands very well, as the following stanzas explain. 

She was married to a man she loved and with whom she had their child, but since he has violated his wedding vows in favor of spending time with another woman who doesn’t have a child. But, this speaker believes that in the future, even if it has to be after death, he will return to his true wife and child.

Themes

The main theme of the poem is women’s rights. This theme, coupled with betrayal, covers much of which is plaguing the speaker in the text. She’s been taken advantage of by her husband and left you to raise their child after he found another woman he’d rather spend time with, and, as a woman in the Victorian era, her legal rights are practically nonexistent.

Structure and Form 

‘Void in Law’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is an eleven-stanza poem that is divided into sets of seven lines. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABABABC with the word “Sleep” as the final line of each stanza. The poet kept the lines pretty similar in length, with most being between six and ten syllables, except for the single-word lines at the end of every stanza. 

Literary Devices 

The poet uses a few literary devices in this poem, they include: 

  • Anaphora: the use of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “He’s ours, though.” 
  • Repetition: seen when the poet reuses any poetic element. Anaphora is one example. So is the repetition of the word “sleep” at the end of every stanza. 
  • Allusion: towards the end of the poem, the poet includes a very obscure allusion to a line from Matthew 22.21 in which Christ speaks to Matthew and says, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One

Sleep, little babe, on my knee,

Sleep, for the midnight is chill,

And the moon has died out in the tree,

And the great human world goeth ill.

Sleep, for the wicked agree:

Sleep, let them do as they will.

Sleep.

In the first stanza of ‘Void in Law,’ the poet begins with her speaker addressing a small child on her knee. The child is sleeping, and the speaker is encouraging them to continue doing so. The speaker repeats the word “sleep” five times in the first stanza and continues to do so throughout the entire poem. This example of repetition, specifically anaphora, creates a nursery rhyme, a repetitive feeling that is meant to soothe both the speaker and the baby. 

The speaker mentions several reasons why the child should sleep. She suggests that there is darkness in the world, and the “wicked agree” with one another and the terrible things they do. The child should sleep, and enjoy the peace, while their mother contends with the role she’s forced to play (the details of which are revealed as the poem progresses). 

Stanza Two 

Sleep, thou hast drawn from my breast

The last drop of milk that was good;

And now, in a dream, suck the rest,

Lest the real should trouble thy blood.

Suck, little lips dispossessed,

As we kiss in the air whom we would.

Sleep.

In the second stanza, the poet uses the word “sleep” twice. The speaker suggests that the child has sucked from her the last drop of good milk that she had. This happens during the woman’s decline, suggesting that something is going on in her life that is making it difficult for her to be healthy, happy, and perhaps even safe.

It’s only in the child’s dream that they are going to be able to “suck the rest” because if they drink from her any longer, they might inherit some of the issues she’s contending with. She uses consonance and alliteration with the use of “little lips” in line five of the second stanza. 

Stanzas Three and Four

O lips of thy father! the same,

So like! Very deeply they swore

When he gave me his ring and his name,

To take back, I imagined, no more!

And now is all changed like a game,

Though the old cards are used as of yore?

Sleep.



“Void in law,” said the Courts. Something wrong

In the forms? Yet, “Till death part us two,

I, James, take thee, Jessie,” was strong,

And ONE witness competent. True

Such a marriage was worth an old song,

Heard in Heaven though, as plain as the New.

Sleep.

The second stanza ended with imagery suggesting kissing, lips, and relationships. This picks up in the third stanza, with the speaker acknowledging that the child’s father has done something wrong. The child has their father’s lips, and they are so similar to their father that it amazes, and troubles the speaker.

Her husband’s lips swore to her a specific promise that has yet to be defined when he gave her his ring and his last name. The two are married, and she never expected them to be where they are today. Now, she feels like her life is a game that others are playing and that she has no control over.

The third stanza reveals a great deal about what’s going on in this relationship and in the family. The speaker relays some of the words and phrases she heard when she married her husband, James. It’s also revealed that her name is Jesse. There was one witness to their marriage, and as they were marrying, she saw nothing wrong with it. They were doing exactly what they were supposed to do and staying true to God’s word. 

There was something weak in their marriage, but the marriage itself was binding. She believes they are still married, but the husband no longer acts in a way that a real husband would. But this does not stop the speaker from believing that he will again be her husband in the future.

Stanzas Five and Six 

Sleep, little child, his and mine!

Her throat has the antelope curve,

And her cheek just the color and line

Which fade not before him nor swerve:

Yet she has no child! — the divine

Seal of right upon loves that deserve.

Sleep.




My child! though the world take her part,

Saying, “She was the woman to choose,

He had eyes, was a man in his heart,” —

We twain the decision refuse:

We . . . weak as I am. as thou art, . .

Cling on to him, never to loose.

Sleep.

In the fifth stanza of ‘Void in Law,’ the speaker appears to be describing another woman. This is someone that, it seems likely, came in between her and her husband. This person is beautiful, and the speaker suggests that she is not as old as she is. Also, this woman doesn’t have a child. This seems to suggest that the woman caught the speaker’s husband’s attention because of her age, beauty, and lack of maternal obligation.

But, as readers might expect, this speaker does not see having a child as a bad thing. In fact, she says that a child is the “divine / seal of right upon” deserving loves. 

In the next few lines, the speaker reveals that the world did not take her side when it came to the betrayal her husband committed. Plus, because she was married, the speaker had no real legal recourse to help support her through this terrible time. She suggests that she’s weak and that the child is too (perhaps saying that the child is a girl and will unfortunately probably struggle with the same issues). 

Stanzas Seven and Eight 

He thinks that, when done with this place.

All’s ended? he’ll new-stamp the ore?

Yes, Caesar’s — but not in our case.

Let him learn we are waiting before

The grave’s mouth, the heaven’s gate, God’s face,

With implacable love evermore.

Sleep.




He’s ours, though he kissed her but now;

He’s ours, though she kissed in reply;

He’s ours, though himself disavow,

And God’s universe favor the lie;

Ours to claim, ours to clasp, ours below,

Ours above, . . if we live, if we die.

Sleep.

In the next two stanzas, the speaker suggests that although he’s portrayed her, the two were married before God, and therefore, she always has a claim over him. She hopes that he’ll learn that they’ll be waiting before God and after his death as they are supposed to.

In the seventh stanza, the poet uses a very obscure allusion to Matthew 22.21, in which Christ speaks to Matthew and says, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” 

The next stanza uses more examples of anaphora in the poet’s repetition of “he’s ours, though.” Each of these refers to the actions he took that should, in theory, divide them, but in practice, the speaker knows that because they were married, he is still her’s and her daughter’s. 

Stanzas Nine and Ten 

Ah baby, my baby, too rough

Is my lullaby? What have I said?

Sleep! When I’ve wept long enough

I shall learn to weep softly instead,

And piece with some alien stuff

My heart to lie smooth for thy head.

Sleep.




Two souls met upon thee, my sweet;

Two loves led thee out to the sun:

Alas, pretty hands, pretty feet,

If the one who remains (only one)

Set her grief at thee, turned in a heat

To thine enemy, — were it well done?

Sleep.

The mother and speaker appear to return to herself in the ninth stanza, realizing that her language may have become too dark and too aggressive around her child. She again asked her child to sleep and told her that she would learn to cry softer after she’s had some more time to process what was going on. But, at this time, she can’t help but cry loudly and, accidentally, wake the baby up. 

She believes that with a little time, her heartbeat will slow down, decreasing from the frantic sorrowful pace it’s been out, and ” her child’s head to rest on her chest. 

The speaker’s language is more peaceful in the 10th stanza as she addresses her child and tells her that her soul and her father’s soul lead the child out “into the sun” and into existence. They loved each other and created from their bond “pretty hands, pretty feet.” This is something that she hopes will bring her child comfort and make up for some of the more negative language used in previous stanzas.

Stanza Eleven 

May He of the manger stand near

And love thee! An infant He came

To His own who rejected Him here,

But the Magi brought gifts all the same.

I hurry the cross on my Dear!

My gifts are the griefs I declaim!

Sleep.

In the final stanza of ‘Void in Law,’ the speaker uses language that takes the form of a prayer. She asks that Christ stand near the child and love her because when he was born, he, too, had been rejected by others. But, the magi knew who he was and brought him gifts anyway. The only gifts the mother has right, though, she concludes, are the gifts of the grief she can’t stop talking about. 

FAQs 

What is the purpose of ‘Void in Law?’

The purpose of this poem is to bring to light the injustices Victorian women had to suffer as part of their marriages. The specific woman was betrayed by her husband and, due to the archaic laws of the time, she had no right to any of the property they shared or any recourse. 

Who is the speaker in ‘Void in Law?’

The speaker is a woman who married a man she loved, had a child with him, and then was betrayed by him when he met and become attached to another woman. She’s emotionally scarred by what happened to her but determined that one day, because of the vowels the two made before God, her husband will come back to her. 

What is the message of ‘Void in Law?’

The message is that women in Barrett Browning’s time had little to no rights, especially after they were married. The woman in the poem appears to have no recourse in her situation. She can only hope her husband comes back to her. 

What kind of poem is ‘Void in Law?’

Void in Law’ is a ballad. It is written in eleven seven-line stanzas that use a rhyme scheme of ABABABC. The poem is in part addressed to the speaker’s child, a young baby who can’t really understand what’s being said (an example of an apostrophe). 


Similar Poetry 

If you enjoyed this poem, you should also consider reading some other Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems. For example: 

  • Sonnet 7– is a love sonnet that’s dedicated to the poet’s husband.
  • Sonnet 8‘ – is a Petrarchan sonnet that celebrates the poet’s new relationship with her husband, Robert Browning.
  • Grief‘ – speaks on how one can feel true grief and what it does to the body and soul.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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