Overcoming the hardships of separation in a relationship remains one of most difficult endeavors of love. Thoughts, memories, and concealed feelings become temporary substitutes for the desire of the actual person. In sonnet XXIX, of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” the speaker animates her thoughts through associations and comparisons with plant life to bring herself closer to her love interest.
Although the speaker eventually realizes that her thoughts and memories can only be a temporary substitute for person she fancies, she attempts to subside her sadness through the physical nature around her.
Sonnet XXIX – "Sonnets From The Portuguese"
I think of thee! – my thoughts do twine and bud
About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,
Put out broad leaves, and soon there's nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood
I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
Who art dearer, better! rather, instantly
Renew thy presence. As a strong tree should,
Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee
Drop heavily down,– burst, shattered, everywhere!
Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
I do not think of thee–I am too near thee.
| As the poem begins, the speaker proclaims her thoughts of her beloved to show the reader her mindset. She enthusiastically states that she “think[s] of thee!” now that he has been separated from her (ln.1). By beginning with this statement, the speaker clearly establishes the theme of the poem. After establishing the point of the sonnet, the speaker then proceeds to explain how her “thoughts do twine and bud” around her love (ln.1).
The specific natural diction associates the poet’s thoughts with the actions of plants. She remarks that her thoughts are as uncultivated “as wild vines, about a tree” (ln.2). The simile creates a direct connection between the speaker’s ideas and the imagery of natural actions she describes.
This association ties together the speaker’s non-physical thoughts with physical plants. In doing this, the speaker animates her thoughts and makes them reality. By making her thoughts real, she can convince herself that her love is closer to her and a part of her even when he remains far away. When the thoughts of the speaker become concrete through these associations, she becomes closer to him.
As the speaker goes from the mind to reality through physicality, the poem itself follows this pattern as it progresses from beginning to end. The first words of the poem state that the speaker “thinks of thee” while the last words of the poem tells the reader that the speaker comes “near thee” (lns.1,14). This movement from thought to reality shows the reader that the speaker yearns to be near the lover and the entire poem is dedicated to her attempts of reaching him. The ideas, images, and symbolism in the poem were all used just to get closer to the one she desires and eventually, at the end, she feels she has reached the milestone she began when writing the sonnet.
To illustrate her attempts further, the speaker moves from simple thoughts to elaborate memories and tries to show the reader how engrossed she can become with her sweetheart. The poet’s transition from small thoughts to large memories parallels the movement in plant imagery from a small “bud” to large leaves. This shift shows the reader the importance of memories and how they control the speaker’s mind even more than the thoughts did. Once the “broad leaves” of memories have begun, “there’s nought to see” anything else because they “hide the wood” from all things (ln.3). The memories are animated to physical leaves that do not merely wrap around the love object, but cover her from the entire world of “straggling” distractions (ln.4). The broad leaves represent memories since they shut the woods off to sunlight for long periods of time just as memories close off the speaker’s mind to outside thought and distraction. These memories become physical entities that separate her from the rest of the harsh world around her. Thus, the woods become a metaphor for the entire world around her. She finds that the best escapes from the dreary world are the memories she has of her love. The speaker retreats to these memories to get away from the difficulties of her life. In closing off the world, the speaker is better able to focus on her lover and therefore become closer to him through concentration.
After taking care of the exterior distractions and the harshness of the outside world, the speaker must now alleviate the inner pain she feels because of the separation she faces. To ease the difficulties of heartache, the speaker connects her love to physicality once again, physicality that not only represents him, but also is closer in proximity to her than he can be. The connections the speaker makes between the physical and non-physical realm continue as the speaker characterizes her love as a “tree.” Even though her love object is a concrete individual, the speaker personifies the tree to become the object because the tree is physically closer to her than her love. Since she envisions her beloved to be a strong muscular man with firm beliefs, the tree’s physical strength serves as a perfect reminder for her love and thus the tree becomes the ideal choice for the metaphor. Just like her lover, a tree has strength and firmness. The imagery brings a physicality of love to her that she lacks since her true love is not close to her. Since love can also be one of the most wild and natural emotions, the imagery used in the poem enhances the speaker’s ideas on love. She goes back to nature to compare her love because love itself is a natural phenomenon. Thus, the speaker’s personification of her love shows the reader that she yearns to be close to her love. Thus, the use of plants becomes the best metaphor for love and her feelings of raw desire.
The attraction she has for her love progresses to sexual connotation as the poem continues. The speaker specifically uses a tree to characterize her lover because of the physical similarities between the two. She calls him her “palm-tree” and asks for him to “rustle [his] boughs and set [his] trunk all bare” because she yearns to be with him (lns.5, 9). The specific diction used personifies the tree once again to add the elements of sexuality. The rustling suggests flirtatiousness while the longing for bareness alludes to the raw sexual urge of undressing. Another reason for the choice of plant imagery is the rawness of trees that parallel the raw animal nature within her. The natural state of the wood suggests that the speaker is in her natural state when thinking of her love. Again, the speaker connects the actions of a tree to the actions of love to illustrate her desires for physicality. The sexual connotation shows the reader that not only does the speaker miss her love, but she also yearns for the lovemaking they have shared earlier. This combination of plant imagery and sexual symbolism connects the speaker to her love through symbolism. When her love becomes a physical object, he becomes as real as the tree he represents, bringing him closer to her.
Even though there are many reminders of her love around her, the speaker makes clear that she cannot be satisfied with substitutes and she craves her love. She “will not have [her] thoughts instead of thee” because he cannot be replaced (ln.6). She knows that these games of animation she plays throughout the poem are only temporary and short lived because nothing can really take the place of the one she loves. In stating this clearly for the reader, the speaker suggests that no matter how hard she tries to replace her love with thoughts, memories, and other physical connections, she can not fully substitute any one thing for the love and affection she gets from him. He is “dearer, better” than everything because he surpasses all else in the world (ln.7). The speaker comes to realize that these characterizations she has been making thus far only serve their purpose for a short time. Thus, tired of these attempts, the speaker now longs for her actual love and not the substitutes she has created.
In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet XXIX of the “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” the speaker animates her love to bring him closer to her. Using natural imagery and metaphor, the speaker is able to feel closer to her love through representation, sexual connotation, and physicality. Although the speaker eventually realizes that there is no substitute for her true love, she uses these images to give herself temporary relief from the sadness of her love being away from her. The poem shows the reader that passion can be a painful thing when distance separates two lovers.