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From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV

What role does love play in our lives? In her 1850 poem, From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV 'Let the world’s sharpness, like a closing knife' (Sonnet 24) Elizabeth Barret Browning makes the claim that love protects us from the 'world's sharpness'. This claim is explored through a number of literary devices, including the personification of 'love' and 'the world's sharpness' as they contrast and conflict each other throughout the poem.

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From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV

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What role does love play in our lives? In her 1850 poem, From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV 'Let the world’s sharpness, like a closing knife' (Sonnet 24) Elizabeth Barret Browning makes the claim that love protects us from the 'world's sharpness'. This claim is explored through a number of literary devices, including the personification of 'love' and 'the world's sharpness' as they contrast and conflict each other throughout the poem.

Written In

1850

Written By

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Form

Petrarchan Sonnet

Meter

Iambic pentameter / no set meter

Rhyme Scheme

ABBA ABBA (first octave). Then no set rhyme scheme for last sestet.

Poetic Devices

EnjambmentCaesuraPersonification Simile

Frequently noted imagery

NatureProtection

Tone

Lyrical and heart-felt

Key themes

Romantic love

Meaning

Love protects us from the 'sharpness' of the world.

From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV: context

We will discuss the biographical and literary context of the work.

Biographical context

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a Romantic poet who lived from 1806 to 1861, during the Victorian Era. She was a widely successful poet, her collections The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838) and Poems by Elizabeth Barrett (1844) were both well received and highly successful.

Barret Browning wasn’t formally educated, instead she mostly educated herself through extensive reading. She began writing poetry at a young age including her poem 'The Battle of Marathon' published in 1819, which she wrote when she was twelve.

After her mother died when she was in her twenties, Barret Browning's father forbade his children from marrying. Her poetry eventually attracted the attention and admiration of Robert Browning. The two poets exchanged 574 letters, which led to the couple's eventual elopement. Upon her marriage, Elizabeth Barret Browning was disowned by her father and she moved to Italy with Robert Browning.

From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV,  portrait of Elizabeth Barret Browning, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Literary context

Barret Browning's literary style was largely experimental and broke the literary conventions of the 19th century. For instance, her first poem 'The Battle of Marathon' (1820) was an epic poem on the Greco-Persian Wars (490 to 479 CE). This is a style of poetry which was prevalent in the ancient societies of Greece, India and Mesopotamia among others; Barret Browning's decision to utilise such a form of poetry was a unique and experimental decision for a 19th-century poet.

Epic poem: A poem which often tells the story of extraordinary characters embarking on great adventures or battles. Epic poetry is of great length and has a narrative structure. The longest epic poem is the 'Mahabharata', a text from ancient India.

‘Let the world’s sharpness, like a closing knife’ or 'Sonnet XXIV (24)' is part of the collection Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). The collection consists of 44 love sonnets written by Elizabeth Barret Browning between 1845 and 1846 to her husband Robert Browning.

Elizabeth Barret Browning chose to publish the collection under the guise of it being a set of translations of foreign sonnets, to give her and Robert Browning some privacy. This decision is why the collection is called Sonnets from the Portuguese.

From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV summary

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

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

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.

Title

‘Let the world’s sharpness, like a closing knife’ is one of 44 sonnets in Barret Browning's 1850 collection Sonnets From the Portuguese. The sonnets appear in a sequence and are typically numbered but do not have a title. Instead of having a title separate from the text in the poem, the first line of the sonnet becomes the title

All of the poems in the collection are titled in this way, including 'Sonnet XLIII (43)' ('How do I love thee? Let me count the ways') which is one of Barret Browning's most well-known pieces.

The poem's simplistic title highlights how it is part of a broader collection of sonnets. Moreover, the use of the poem's first line as its title allows the contents of the poem to portray the poem's meaning without interference or influence from a title separate from the poem's contents.

Octave

The first half of the octave introduces the issue, or question, of the sonnet: 'the world's sharpness'. In juxtaposition to this 'sharpness' is 'love', which is 'soft and warm'. By introducing the juxtaposition between 'the world's sharpness' and 'love' at the poem's opening, Barret Browning creates the basis for love as the solution to the 'world's sharpness' at the poem's close. The second half of the octave develops 'love' as a protective force which makes the narrator feel 'as safe as guarded by a charm'.

Sestet

The final six lines of the poem form a sestet, shifting away from the regular rhyme scheme in the first eight lines. This shift creates a contrast between the poem's two sections despite them being part of the same stanza.

Natural imagery dominates the final six lines, reflective of the style of Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth. This use of imagery associated with Romanticism highlights the importance of love in the poem. The sonnet's final lines conclude the argument that love can protect us against the sharpness of the world.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was an English poet who contributed heavily to the Romantic era of English Literature. His collection Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (1798) written and published in collaboration with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is considered as one of the first publications of this Romantic era.

After Wordsworth's death in 1850, Elizabeth Barret Browning was one of the top candidates to take over the position of poet laureate.

Romanticism: A literary movement characterised by a focus on individual expirience and an appreciation of the natural world.

Sonnet XXIV: its structure & form

Let's take a look at the structure and form of the famous Sonnet XXIV.

Form

The poem takes the form of a Petrarchan Sonnet, consisting of one octave and a sestet.

The Petrarchan Sonnet is also known as an Italian Sonnet. It consists of fourteen lines but differs from the popular Shakespearean Sonnet form in its rhyme scheme. Instead of ending with a rhyming couplet, a Petrarchan Sonnet ends with a sestet (two sets of three lines) that follows either a CDE CDE or a CDC CDC rhyme scheme. The second half of a Petrarchan Sonnet intends to resolve a question asked in the first half.

Octave: The first eight lines of a Petrarchan sonnet. Or an eight-line stanza.

Sestet: The final six lines of a Petrarchan sonnet. Or a six-line stanza.

Meter

Iambic pentameter is used for the majority of the poem, but not throughout. For instance, while the first four lines are written in iambic pentameter the fifth line of the poem does not:

After the click of the shutting. Life to life—

Here, the second 'life' breaks the iambic pentameter, accentuating the word and its significance.

Iambic pentameter is used, for instance in the poem's eleventh line;

Their blossoms from their roots, accessible

This emphasises the theme of love in the poem, as the rhythm resembles that of a heartbeat.

Iambic pentameter: A line of verse containing five iambs. An iamb consists of two syllables, the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed.

Sonnet XXIV literary devices

The literary devices that are used in Sonnet XXIV are:

Personification

Personification is used throughout the poem. Both 'the world's sharpness' and 'love' are personified, reflecting how these two concepts juxtapose and work against each other.

In the opening stanza Barret Browning writes 'Let the world’s sharpness' 'shut in upon itself', giving the abstract noun of 'sharpness' human features. Love is also personified in this stanza, underpinning the conflict between sharpness and love:

Shut in upon itself and do no harm

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

The metaphorical language of 'hand of love' brings the abstract noun to life through the image of a hand clasping over a knife, protecting others from its sharpness.

Personification: When you give human features or characteristics to something which is not human.

Similes

Barret Browning develops the image of 'sharpness' through her use of the simile 'like a clasping knife.' By connecting the abstract noun 'sharpness' to the concrete noun of 'knife' Browning underpins the danger 'sharpness' presents. Similar to a knife, 'sharpness' can cut us and do harm.

From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV, Image of a hand holding a knife, StudySmarterFig. 2 - 'like a clasping knife'.

Juxtaposition

Barret Browning utilises juxtaposition to create a contrast between love and sharpness, presenting two aspects of the world in opposition. In the first octave, the 'sharpness' of the world is juxtaposed by the 'soft' hand of love. This juxtaposition is continued throughout the poem, with contrasting semantic fields of violence ('sharpness', 'knife', 'strife', 'stab') and safety ('soft and warm', 'guarded', 'charm', 'reassure').

Semantic field: A collection of lexically related terms.

Enjambment

Enjambment is present throughout the poem, creating a continuous rhythm as sentences aren't confined to single lines. For instance, at the beginning of the sestet (final six lines of the poem) Barret Browning writes;

And feel as safe as guarded by a charm
Against the stab of worldlings, who if rife

Here, the continuation of the sentence allows it both to flow naturally and emphasises the phrase 'Against the stab of worldlings' which opens the second line. In this case, the enjambment both allows the poem to flow naturally and highlights the importance of 'love' in protecting us against the 'stab of worldings'.

Enjambment: When a sentence continues from one line of a poem onto the next.

Caesura

Caesura is used twice in the poem;

After the click of the shutting. Life to life—

And

Are weak to injure. Very whitely still

In both cases the caesura breaks up the line, fragmenting the poem's rhythm. Both instances of caesura are used when describing 'the world's sharpness'. By fragmenting the poem's rhythm, Barret Browning emphasises the potential harshness of the world, enhancing its contrast to the 'soft' nature of love.

Caesura: A break in the line of a poem, caused by the use of punctuation such as a full-stop, question-mark or exclamation-mark.

Imagery and tone of Sonnet XXIV

Now we will explore the imagery and tone of the sonnet.

Imagery

The imagery is connected to nature and protection.

Nature

Natural imagery dominates the final five lines of the poem, reflecting the influence of Romanticism on Barret Browning's work.

A semantic field of the natural world is evident in Barret Browning's choice of language; 'lilies', 'blossoms', 'roots', 'dews' and 'hill'. The use of natural imagery associated with plants is particularly effective, as it produces the image of things growing and developing. The image of things growing highlights the constant and ever-expanding nature of love, particularly in its efforts 'against the stab of worldings'.

The emergence of natural imagery toward the poem's close also creates a sense of love, reflected in the growing natural world, persevering despite the 'the world's sharpness'. Upon the emergence of the semantic field of nature, the semantic field of violence completely disappears.

Protection

Imagery associated with protection dominates the poem, highlighting the narrative that love can protect us against 'the world's sharpness'.

The extended metaphor, of love as a closed hand, protecting those from the 'clasping knife' of the 'world's sharpness' is built on by language associated with protection such as the verb 'guarded'. The image of the hand of love protecting those against harm underpins the importance of love in the poem and to the narrator. They believe that love can protect us against all the 'sharpness' and cruelty of the world.

From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV, image of hands clasped together, StudySmarter Fig. 3 - In this close hand of Love'.

Tone

The poem has a lyrical and heart-felt tone created partly by Barret Browning's use of iambic pentameter and an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme in the first eight lines of the poem. This tone is further developed by the theme of romantic love, present throughout the poem and enhanced by the semantic field of safety and protection.

Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV: themes

Let's take a look at the main theme of the sonnet – romantic love – and the subjects that it brings to the surface.

Romantic love

The theme of romantic love dominates the poem and the narrative that love can protect us against 'the world's sharpness'.

This theme is apparent in many of the linguistic choices made by Elizabeth Barret Browning. For instance, throughout the poem, the personal pronouns of 'us' and 'our' are used to highlight how the narrator feels as though they can 'lean upon' their lover for support.

The collective imagery produced by these personal pronouns contributes to the semantic field of safety and protection present in the poem. The narrator feels protected by their lover and the fact that they know they have their lover's support.

The theme of romantic love is also developed by Barret Browning's reference to 'God' during the poem's final line. The statement 'God only, who made us rich, can make us poor' adds a transcendental element to the love expressed in the poem.

The love the narrator has experienced, which protects them from the 'world's sharpness' is partly due to God. The idea that this higher power has played a part in the narrator's love, adds a transcendental aspect to the love: it is beyond that of the mortal world of the living, existing also in a spiritual sense.

From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV - Key takeaways

  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a Romantic poet who lived from 1806 to 1961 during the Victorian Era.
  • ‘Let the world’s sharpness, like a closing knife’ is one of 44 sonnets in Barret Browning's 1850 collection Sonnets From the Portuguese.
  • The poem alludes to the form of a Petrarchan Sonnet, consisting of one octave and a sestet.
  • The poem has an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme for the first eight lines and is written in iambic pentameter.
  • Barret Browning uses poetic devices such as enjambment and caesura in the poem, alongside personification and simile.
  • Imagery of nature and protection is present within the poem.

Frequently Asked Questions about From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV

The 'hand of Love' is 'soft and warm' in  'Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV'.

The key theme of 'Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV' is romantic love, and the ability of love to protect us from 'the world's sharpness'.

Elizabeth Barret Browning chose to publish the collection under the guise of it being a set of translations of foreign sonnets, to give her and Robert Browning some privacy. This decision is why the collection is called Sonnets from the Portuguese.

The first eight lines (octave) of the poem have an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme. The final six lines (sestet) have no rhyme scheme.

Elizabeth Barret Browning was a widely acclaimed writer during and after her life, nearly being named Poet Laurette after William Wordsworth's death. 

Sonnets from the Portuguese are a collection of love sonnets written by Barret Browning for her husband Robert Browning, another famous poet. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

When was 'Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV' published?

What imagery is used in 'From Sonnets from the Portuguese XXIV'? Select two.

Which of these semantic fields are not present in the poem?

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