Places: Sonnets from the Portuguese

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1850

Type of work: Poetry

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedPastoral settings

Pastoral Sonnets from the Portuguesesettings. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s imagery derives from several sources suggestive of place. Often, she does not specifically name the place that she invokes, but a close reading can determine it. Her first sonnet speaks of Theocritus, an ancient Greek poet who developed the pastoral, using bucolic scenes and idylls. Barrett Browning’s sonnets reveal her dependency on natural scenes as sources of wisdom. Nature is considered to possess a purity that fallen human nature cannot own. The sonnets are filled with references to owls, bats, crickets, woodland nightingales, bees–all manner of living things.


*Venice. Italian city that is mentioned several times in the sonnets. In contrast to her pastoral references, Barrett Browning’s references to European cities add a layer of urban sophistication to the sonnets. For example, she calls a mirror “Venice-glass,” alluding to Murano glass, which was manufactured in Venice. In writing about the contents of her soul, she mentions the Rialto, a theatrical district and marketplace that takes its name from an island in Venice. The poet thereby shows her lover that she has the innocence of the pristine countryside, but the sophistication of a city.


Heaven. Perhaps the most mentioned place in the sonnets. The poet longs for her union with her beloved, believing that such love is consistent with her soul’s longing for Heaven. Indeed, just as life in Heaven is blessed, so, too, is life on Earth blessed by such a union. The poet beseeches Heaven’s blessing and fears the loss of Heaven should her union with her lover not stand the test of time.

BibliographyBurdett, Osbert. The Brownings. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1936. Though dated, and consequently containing conclusions and facts that have since proven false, this biography contains one of the most readable treatments of the Sonnets from the Portuguese, detailing the development of the Brownings’ love through a reading of the poems.Cooper, Helen. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. An excellent study of Browning’s poetics, relating them to the conflicting roles of women in the Victorian era.Falk, Alice. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Her Prometheuses: Self-Will and a Woman Poet.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 7, no. 1 (Spring, 1988): 69-85. Discusses Browning’s translations of Aeschylus and her familiarity with and use of classical images.Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Shows Mary Barrett, Elizabeth’s mother, to have been the shaping influence in her education. Revises the myth of Elizabeth’s father as the tyrant of Wimpole Street.Hayter, Alethea. Mrs. Browning: A Poet’s Work and Its Setting. London: Faber and Faber, 1962. Though she does not think the Sonnets from the Portuguese Browning’s best work, Hayter’s detailed analyses of them are a good companion to the sequence. Her basic criticism is that the sonnets were written too close to the emotional events of her courtship and lack the objective distance needed for great art.Leighton, Angela. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. A feminist reevaluation of Browning’s life and works that also examines the Browning myth. Discusses the poet in relation to her male predecessors.Lupton, Mary Jane. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Long Island, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1972. A general study of Browning combining criticism and biography, this book includes a generous section on the Sonnets from the Portuguese, which emphasizes the unusualness in 1850 of Browning’s feminine point of view in love sonnets yet notes the irony of that point of view expressing dependence and weakness.Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Mermin claims that Browning originated a female tradition in Victorian poetry. She draws heavily on Browning’s earlier diary and numerous letters. Extensive notes and bibliography.Mermin, Dorothy. “The Female Poet and the Embarrassed Reader: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.” ELH 48, no. 2 (Summer, 1981): 351-367. Mermin makes the case for the “embarrassed reader” who is forced to be an eavesdropper; who, aware of the voice in the male sonnet tradition, hears Browning’s “awkward, mawkish, and indecently personal” voice and is embarrassed.Paul, Sarah. “Strategic Self-Centering and the Female Narrator: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.” Browning Institute Studies 17 (1989): 75-91. Sees the speaker in the Sonnets as covertly empowering herself. Includes an interesting discussion of reversals of gender roles.Radley, Virginia L. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New York: Twayne, 1972. A good starting point for the study of Browning, this volume opens with a brief biography and goes on to analyze Browning’s works. The chapter on the Sonnets from the Portuguese gives background on their composition, analyzes them sequentially, and relates them to the Brownings’ love letters.Stephenson, Glennis. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Poetry of Love. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989. Begins by discussing Browning’s immediate predecessors, then examines her early ballads and lyrics, Lady Geraldine’s Courtship, Sonnets from the Portuguese, Aurora Leigh, and Last Poems. Discussion of the sonnets considers how the female poet enters into a male poetic tradition, specifically examining the role of distance in the sonnet tradition and Browning’s use of it as well as the replacement by Browning of predominantly visual images with predominantly “tactual” images.Taplin, Gardner. The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970. Includes discussion of Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Categories: Places