Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism

By Mary B. Moore | Go to book overview

7 Indeterminacy and the Economy of Love in Sonnets from the Portuguese

My cricket chirps against thy mandolin.
Hush, call no echo up in further proof
Of desolation! there's a voice within
That weeps... as thou must sing... alone, aloof.

-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Contrasting her cricket with the beloved's mandolin in the epigraph, the female poet of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet sequence portrays herself as small, desolate, and unequal to the male poet whose mandolin she "chirps against." In life, however, Barrett Browning was her era's favorite woman poet, a person considered for poet laureate despite her seclusion in her father's home; while Robert, who was most famous well after the poets' marriage and the sonnets' publication, never became quite the public figure Alfred Tennyson, his contemporary, was. The sequence Sonnets from the Portuguese thus dramatizes a story somewhat different from that of the two Victorian poets whose elopement and literary artifacts-the love sonnets and the letters--made them romantic idols in their day. 1 As this contrast between fact and fiction suggests, respecting the fictive screen that Barrett Browning's title erects, distinguishing biography at least in part from life enhances rather than reduces this poet's artistry. 2 As fiction, Barrett Browning's sonnet sequence accommodates two distinctive and sometimes even rivalrous characters--as the punning against in the epi-

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