In Elizabeth Browning, this dialogue of the poem with itself exists on a much subtler level than it does in Arnold. “Sonnets from the Portuguese” do not shift from a poem of distance to a poem of intimacy: they all remain, rather, within the same register of emotion, though that register might be more passionate in one sonnet than another (sonnet 21, for example, has more ardent tone, centered on enunciation and evocation, then sonnet 32, which is a more level narration). Within the poem, however, the register does not fluctuate. The double poem arises, then, by accessing the complementary opposite of what the sonnet sets up.
The term ‘complementary opposite’ implies two seemingly conflicting concepts that are two necessary sides of the same system. Sonnet 21 creates an argument for the use of repeated speech in love, viewing the repetition of the words, “I love you” as unable to lose their force and power. The poem, then, calls for communication and repeated expression, with its punctuation and vocabulary reflecting this content. Terms and phrases are recurrent: “over again” and “once over again” in line 1, “Too many… though” occurs both in line 10 and 11, variations of speech (“Speak”, “cry”, “Say”) are dotted through out the poem. The register of passion and restatement comes to its crescendo in:
Say thou dost love me, love me, love me—toll
The silver iterance!---… (12-3)
Followed, on the same line, by the Volta and the second poem of the text, its only appearance:
…---only minding, Dear,
To love me also in silence with thy soul (13-4).
The second poem accesses the complimentary opposite of the first: silence as opposed to speech and, on a lesser level, the soul as opposed to the body and earth. The rhythm of the sonnet slows, calmed by the endearment, “dear” in the middle of the sentence and further checked by “also” in line 14. Reason (functioning as a verb) fills the gap between the two seemingly contrasting concepts of speech and silence: upon first glance, the request for articulation and simultaneous silence seems deeply incompatible, forcing the reader to back to the first poem to re examine the inconsistency. It is only through this reflection on the readers’ part that the complemental emerges from the opposing: in the whole that is the sonnet, silence and speech are dependent upon each other as concepts. Communication of the words of love would mean nothing if the depth of love did not exist in silence, in the soul. But as the first poem proves, keeping that depth of love silent, serves no purpose: it is only through speech that the “fresh Spring in all her green” (6) arrives, that “doubt’s pain” (8) can be extinguished and true connection (a common theme in Arnold as well) created.
Elizabeth Browning’s sonnets, then, seem to begin with a version of emotional reality that they advocate and support: providing enough evidence to raise it to the level of epistemological: Sonnet 21 uses the stars (10), flowers (11), cuckoo and spring (3-6) to illustrate and build up her argument, further stressing the power of words to dispel doubt and darkness (7-8). They then access and present, through the double poem, its complementary opposite, which often resides in a deeper reality than the first emotional reality (as seen in silence and speech) and is often intuitive— and therefore not subject to the laws of logic. Reason, then, (referring to the reader’s reason) is required to fill the gap created to mediate the connection and relationship between the two poems of the double poem.
Sonnet 21 is the clearest and richest example of the above paradigm. But it does exist in the other sonnets as well. In sonnet 32, for example, the paradigm is altered slightly. The expression of the sonnet, for one, differs: it is more narrative than passionate address. In the first poem of the sonnet, the text speaks about the poetic persona’s uncertainty of love: the doubt is framed within the span of a day: “The first time the sun rose on thy oath…I looked forward to the moon/ to slacken all those bonds…” (1-3). The doubt is then raised to the level of rationality and logic by evidence:
Quick loving hearts, I thought, may quickly loathe;
And, looking on myself, I seemed not one
For such a man’s love!... (5-7)
When the second poem emerges, in the second half of line 12, heralded in by the emphasis on ‘thee’, it accesses the complementary opposite of the first poem. The center of the sonnet changes from the poetic persona to the addressee, and doubt is transformed into faith and certainty. But a gap still exists between the complementary opposites: we are not told how that change came about, or why. Once again, the reader’s reason is left to occupy the gap created and question the logic of the emotional realities presented: if the poetic persona feared her abandonment “at the first ill-sounding note” (10), then such a doubt could never be abated by night— if even the moon did not bring abandonment and loss, then logic dictates that the next day might, or the day after that, as long as it takes for that “ill-sounding note” to be struck. The certainty achieved in the second poem, that
…perfect strains may float
‘Neath master-hands, from instruments defaced—
And great souls, at one stroke, may do and dote (12-4).
gives us no logical respite: the creation of beautiful music now does not ensure that no false note will be struck, whether now or later.
Unlike sonnet 21, reflection on the part of the reader does not lend a synthesis to the double poem of sonnet 32. The sonnet does privilege its second poem to that of the first, seeing the certainty as the triumphant and resulting emotion, but, as in Arnold’s “The Buried Life”, the very presence of the first poem undermines, or at the very least, questions the solidity of that conclusion. This ambiguity that the simultaneous presence of two poems creates in the text, is what Armstrong describes as “arbitrariness that presupposes the reader” (5). Because of their secondary and alienated existence, Victorian poets felt all the more acutely the crisis of the representation that their age presented, changing relationships in the face of political and technological upheaval. The double poem negotiates and presents that fractured existence.
Arthur Hallam commented on this same fractured existence, in “Some Characteristics of Modern poetry.” He describes his age as “an era of reaction, an era of painful struggle, to bring our over-civilized condition of thought into union with the fresh productive spirit” (104). The confinement of the different aspects of the poetic whole (Sensitive, Reflective, Passionate emotion) into separate spheres of agency meant that:
The whole system no longer worked harmoniously, and by intrinsic harmony acquired external freedom; but there arose a violent and unusual action in several component functions, each for itself, all striving to reproduce the regular power which the whole had once enjoyed. Hence the melancholy, which so evidently characterises the spirit of modern poetry; hence the return of the mind upon itself (105).
The dominance of melancholy as the overarching emotion in a poem is seen in both Arnold and Browning and is, I would argue, created by the dialogue of emotion and reason within the form of a double poem. If, as we have seen in Arnold, reason undercuts emotion and vice versa, the resounding sensation left is not that of bright hope or completely despair but a combination of both: an undercurrent of mournful loss for the absolutes. For his poetry can neither achieve the triumph of emotion over reason, or reason over emotion— it can never dedicate itself to complete joy or hope, nor wishes to dedicate itself to complete and utter celebration of despair. In a sense, the double undercut negates its components (reason and emotion) to creates an absence rather than a loss: “ [the poems] mourn the fact the poet— but also we, fellow victims of history and the corrosion worked by its attendant self consciousness— have never really known, can never know the immediacy of real joy, or real faith or even —… real youth” (Collini 44).
This theme of absence is less dominant in Browning: in her sonnets, love is seen as a force to contend with, as a real, tangible and powerful phenomenon. Yet the overarching emotion of melancholy registers itself in her sonnets in the form of gravity, somberness. Despite their status as sonnets (and therefore love poems) Browning never descends to an idealised celebration of love, or raising it to the common tropes of heavenly. The sonnets, instead, ground love in reality, in its contradictions: In sonnet 21, in the requirement of simultaneous speech and silence; in sonnet 32, the logical gap between the second poem and the first. In sonnet 22 she addresses these idealisations, demanding of her lover (and us) to “Think!” (6) if we ever wish to place love among the angels:
…In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay (7-9)
Dearness is prized above perfection; and earth, with its “unfit/ Contrary moods of men” (10-11) is found a haven for lovers (over heaven) who seek isolation. The gravity of all her sonnets, their somberness, is created by the ability of the over-arching reason in her poetry to see and record the darkness and contradictory existence around her, not obliterate it. Love on earth is recognized as having “darkness and the death-hour rounding it” (14); speech is seen as requiring silence and silence speech; and certainty of love, even when triumphant, is questioned, however subtly, on its permanence. Both Arnold and Browning have an acute sense of that “ ‘demonic element’— as Goethe called it—which underlies and encompasses our life” (Arnold qtd. in Collini 7). Both poets reached the same conclusion that Goethe did: “the right thing is, while conscious of this element, and of all that there is inexplicable round one, to keep pushing on one’s post into the darkness and to establish no post that is not perfectly in light and firm. One gains nothing on the darkness by being… as incoherent as the darkness itself” (Arnold qtd. in Collini 7). An acknowledgement of that darkness ensures that no post can be perfectly in light: the best Victorian poets could do, then, was a mixture of both darkness and light, reason and emotion, presented simultaneously through the form of a double poem.
Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age Volume E. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1368-9.
---. “The Buried Life”. Greenblatt, 1356-58.
Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, poetics and politics. London: Routledge, 1993.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “Sonnets from the Portuguese: 21”. Greenblatt, 1084.
---. “Sonnets from the Portuguese: 32”. Greenblatt, 1084-5.
---. “Sonnets from the Portuguese: 22”. Greenblatt, 1084.
Collini, Stefan. Arnold. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1988.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. Volume E. United States of America: W.W.Norton & Company, 2006.
Hallam, Arthur Henry. “On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry, and on the Lyrical Poem of Alfred Lord Tennyson”. The Poems of Arthur Hallam together with his Essay on The Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson. London: E. Mathews & J.Lane, 1893.
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