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Elizabeth Barrett Browning Sonnet 22

The tone of this sonnet is very different to that of Sonnet XXI. It is extremely serious but also
confident, suggesting that the poet is absolutely sure of the truth of what she is saying.
EBB suggests that their love can take them into a spiritual realm away from earthly concerns,
but then rejects this. She prefers them to remain earthly lovers, even though she recognises
that physical love is not permanent because it cannot overcome death. She argues that nothing
in life can harm them because they love each other.
There is also a sense of equality in this poem. There is no masculine or feminine aspect. Shes
become a man/woman voice (note the allusions to masculine mythological figures. Angels
are gender neutral).
In this sonnet the poet uses the first person plural (we / us / our). This is a development
from the previous ones set for study, in which she used the first and second person singular.
The change reflects her growing certainty that they truly love each other.
In the octave she imagines their souls facing each other in silence, getting closer together
until their lengthening wings break into fire. This image seems to refer to their deaths,
when their physical bodies will be destroyed and their souls will escape to heaven together.
This interpretation is supported by the reference to angels. It links to the wish expressed in
Sonnet XIV to be loved through loves eternity. and in Sonnet XXI to be loved with his
The image also has overtones of the mythical phoenix, a bird that burns itself to ashes and
comes forth with new life (it is a symbol of resurrection) suggesting the intensity of the
love has destroyed her old self and renewed her.
Until their lengthening wings break into fire. Here we have the use of
classical/mythological allusion to Icarus who flew to close to the sun and had his wings
melt. Could this suggest that their love is so passionate it could be dangerous? Fire is also a
symbol for knowledge and wisdom and again refers to the classical story of Prometheus who
stole fire from the gods to give to the mortals and was punished for eternity. Maybe she is
suggesting that to elevate their love to a heavenly status could endanger it.
Some commentators believe that the image is a much more physical one, suggesting a
passionate sexual encounter which metaphorically takes their souls to heaven. If this is the
case, it would be quite daring for a woman in Barrett Brownings context to express such an
The poem seems to be influenced by the C.17th. Metaphysical poet John Donne who wrote
sonnets which presented sensual ideas in religious language and religious themes in powerful
sensual language. There is a definite allusion to John Donnes poem A Valediction
Forbidding Mourning. In the compass conceit, used in his poem the woman is passive and
constant while the man has freedom, power and control, however in EBBs poem, there is a
sense of equality When our two souls stand up erect and strong,/ Face to face, silent drawing
nigher and nigher. erect of course has sexual connotations and there is a build up of

tension in the repetition of nigher and nigher to the climax of fire in their burning
From lines 6 9 she imagines the silent communion of their souls being interrupted the sound
of angels singing as they reach heaven. This was a conventional view of what heaven might
be like at that time.
The alliterative phrase deep, dear silence draws attention to its delicate preciousness and
the assonance elongates the stillness and perfection of silence. silent was also used in line
2, so this emphasises that she imagines that their love is so spiritual that it does not need
words, music or sound. The image of the golden orb ( orb a sphere.) of perfect song
dropping suggests something beautiful and perfect, but intrusive in this situation.
In lines 9 -14 she rejects the previous idea of their souls escaping from earth. (The word
rather means instead). This change (volta) is typical of the sonnet form but not always
found in Barrett Brownings sonnets.
She argues that if they remain earthly lovers, the strength of their love will cause people to
leave them alone. (recoil away jump away in fear or horror).
The unfit contrarious moods of men links to bitter wrong, can the earth do us (lines 4 -5).
This appears to refer to opposition to their love, perhaps from her father, which seemed to
worry her in the octave but no longer concerns her because of her confidence in the power of
their love. The confidence is reflected through the full rhyme in the sestet.
In lines 13 -14 she acknowledges that, unlike spiritual love, earthly love can only last briefly
(for a day) because death must end it (rounding it finishing it).
The use of the indefinite article in a place suggests that their love is better experienced in a
simple, domestic setting whilst the temporal reference to a day reflects the brevity yet
fulfilling and rewarding nature of their love in this real state.
The alliterative ds in darkness and the death-hour makes death sound frightening, but it
no longer seems to concern her because of the strength of their love. The adjectival
reference rounding with regards to mortality shaping their love, suggests the wholeness
and totality their love will reach when experienced in a mortal realm.
EBB is saying you cant expect to achieve ideal love-she represents a contrasting view to that
of Romantic poets.