Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Draft of Sonnet 5 from Sonnets from the Portuguese (Browning Guide D0876.5)

Rare Item Analysis:

by Meagan Smith

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s draft of Sonnet V from the Sonnets of the Portuguese can be found in the Browning Collection (http://www.browningguide.org/ number D0876.5) of the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University. This draft of Sonnet V was written between 1845-6 during the courtship of Robert Browning and EBB, which took place five years after the death of her brother, Edward Barrett on July 11th, 1840 who drowned while visiting EBB in Torquay, on England’s southwest coast. It is a handwritten working draft of Sonnet V, with notes and edits made by EBB, reflecting the process from a rougher version of the sonnet to the completed one. Analysis of this document provides insight not only into EBB’s composition process for her poetry, but also into the thoughts processes that she may have had when beginning to write the Sonnets of the Portuguese. For the purpose of this analysis, I refer to a digital transcription of the draft with marked line numbers, a copy of which accompanies this post.

The draft of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet V is the only working draft available from the Sonnets of the Portuguese. As such, it provides a rare opportunity to analyze EBB’s writing process and to gain some insight as to what thoughts she may have been having related to her familial relationships, her relationship with Robert, and her place in society during the time she wrote the sonnets. In Sonnet V in particular, there is a lot of evidence to indicate that throughout EBB’s writing process she was very aware of the potential of either Robert or other people she knew reading her sonnets after their completion. Seeing as the poem is directed at Robert, EBB is very particular about her word choice throughout the poem, especially in phrases that describe Robert. For instance, in her work on line 7, EBB repeatedly writes down and then either crosses out or moves the word “scorn.” This is likely due to the fact that in this line, “scorn” refers directly to the unnamed character representative of Robert. As the word “scorn” has a naturally negative connotation, EBB is very careful as she edits to use this word in a way that does not imply that Robert is scornful of her.

The draft of Sonnet V also reflects EBB’s introspection as she wrote the poem; she frequently rewrote portions of the poem that pertained directly to herself. This tendency to linger on very personal lines can be seen particularly clearly in her edits made on lines 3 and 13. In line three, we see a removal of the phrase “all it holds” from her description of the emptied urn. This could have been because this sonnet is a love sonnet, and EBB did not wish to imply that her heart held only grief over her brother’s relatively recent death, as opposed to both grief as well as new love for Robert. In line 13, EBB originally develops very violent imagery to describe the impact of her grief on Robert (“hot unspent shafts shall scorch & shred” [Barret Browning 22]), before toning it down in the final draft. This process of coming to a very violent conclusion demonstrates EBB’s wrestling with her own opinions of herself and the ways in which her life might affect Robert’s.

By reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s drafts of her sonnets, one can gain insight into what her thought process was while composing and editing her works. The draft of Sonnet V has great potential in the way of analyzing EBB’s early relationship with Robert, as well as her personal struggles with her grief over her brother’s death. Close reading of this text, as well as comparison with biographical details of EBB’s life could lead not only to detailed insight concerning Sonnet V, but also potentially into EBB’s writing processes in general.

Sonnet V draft-1

Transcription: Sonnet V EBB