Theory of mind is a clumsy tool, enabling the barest grasping of empathy – poetry is much better. Theory of mind works by running low-resolution simulations of the other using the thinnest smattering of empirical data while largely building conceptions from self-derived experience. Instead of answering what is it like to truly be the other, theory of mind really answers what would I be like in their circumstances? It is the eyeballing of a measure in the absence of an applicable standard. Poetry, however, is not a simulation, it is a fossil of the human mind. Just as with an archeological fossil, poetry can be measured – numerically, biographically, historically, metrically – allowing the investigator to ascertain its true dimensions. Thus, a higher resolution view of the poet’s inner world can be gazed upon, allowing the reader to stand aside more objectively, creating space for the causal spirit to speak.
The application of linguistic tools to poetry often exposes surprises as the reader’s naivety evolves into a more mature understanding. A sobering example can be found in the work of Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barret Browning, specifically her Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of forty-four sonnets. Viewed as a whole, the primary substance of Browning’s work is love. Since theory of mind deals in the currency of shortcuts and simplification, Browning can be caricatured as a sappy romantic swooning in the pheromonal fumes of love. But a close reading of the sonnets will yield Browning’s shadow side. In the forty-four sonnets, the word death appears eleven times through ten poems, permeating a quarter of the work. Contrasted with love’s 114 appearances, it’s clear that love is the central theme, but death remains a manifest sublimation. By approaching Sonnets from the Portuguese with death as the focus, etymological and biographical information can be applied to reveal Elizabeth Barret Browning’s inner psychological distress that both compliments and enhances the theme of love.
Death is an old word. Many words in the English language owe their genesis to various waves of Latin and French influence. “Adopted words naturally indicate the new conceptions that the Germanic peoples acquired from [the] contact with a higher civilization” (Baugh 76). But death, being an undeniable human universal, a primordial experience, was not a new concept to speakers of Old English. Else, the Latin word for death, mors, would have been needed (Partridge 416). However, Old English already had déaþ, which more closely resembles death in Modern English (Oxford University 655). Additionally, the definition of death did not change much from its linguistic origin by the time Browning wrote Sonnets from the Portuguese. The Oxford English Dictionary gives three primary definitions: the act or fact of an individual dying, that fact in the abstract, or that fact as a personified agent (Oxford University 655). It was this same primeval vein that Browning mined for her shadow material.
However, the prevalence of a word is not sufficient to explain its presence. Why would Browning buttress her love poems with such a somber concept? It’s important to understand the poet’s background before grappling with such a question. The majority of her life was lived unhealthy and oppressed. Her father was a tyrant, proclaiming and enforcing a ban on marriage for all of his children (Greenblatt 1123). For thirty-nine years, it appeared that Browning would die unwed and alone. But a younger man, a poet named Robert Browning, rescued her from the chastity of isolation (Greenblatt 1123). The two were secretly married and eloped to Italy where Elizabeth’s health improved (Greenblatt 1123). In what must have been a comparatively ecstatic new state, she penned the Sonnets from the Portuguese as a distillation of her love and appreciation for Robert.
The sonnets appear to be chronologically arranged. The opening poem recalls Browning’s desperate state under the rule of her father: “I saw, in gradual vision through my tears, / The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years, / Those of my own life, who by turns had flung / A shadow across me” (Browning 1). Then a mystic shape grabs her by the hair, pulling her backward, and makes a demand. “Guess now who holds thee!”—“Death! I said. But there, / The silver answer rang: “Not Death, but Love” (Browning 1). The mystic shape is undoubtedly Robert, but Elizabeth responds like the traumatized hostage that she is. Unable to discern between captor and liberator, she sees everyone through the filter of Death. Yet, as suggested, death serves as a buttress to love. Browning presents death as a personified agent, evident from the capital D. Robert responds in kind, capitalizing the L in love, making himself the personification of that sentiment and standing in contrast to Death. He is her hero.
Death is mentioned again in the second sonnet, but in the third, its use begins to develop beyond a simple stand-in for depression. Browning begins: “Unlike are we, unlike, O Princely Heart! / Unlike our uses and our destinies” (Browning 3) She establishes an inequality between her and Robert and reaffirms it at the poem’s close. “The chrism is on thine head—on mine, the dew— / And Death must dig the level where these agree” (Browning 3). The chrism on Robert’s head, a baptismal trapping, suggests more maturity than one who is fresh with dew. In matters of love, Elizabeth views herself as inferior which may seem natural in a young relationship, but her evocation of death, personified again, shows her mindset; she will never be on the same level with her husband until they pass from their mortal confines. It is as if her melancholy has found a new source from which to draw anxiety and unease. Indeed, she struggles with these feelings throughout the rest of the work with death as a frequent illustrative touchstone. In sonnet XIX she resolves to “tie the shadows safe from gliding back”, telling Robert that he will “lack / No natural heat till mine grows cold in death” (Browning 19) However, she is back to doubting herself by sonnet XXIII. “Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead, / Wouldst thou miss any life in losing mine?” (Browning 23). Such a question reverberates with irreparable self-doubt. She also alludes that her soul has “dreams of death” (Browning 23). Rather than a symptom that love can cure, Browning’s melancholy, malevolently woven by her father, is a permanent part of her character.
The final mention of death appears in the second to last sonnet which is perhaps the most famous, opening with the line: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” (Browning 43). Among the ways she loves Robert, she counts her deep-seated pain:
“I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death” (Browning 43).
There, in the crescendo of the work, Browning’s full pathos is on display. The loss and tears of her persistent melancholy are reaffirmed, as is her desire to harness that passion for a better use. But her desire is still colored by doubt. She still feels insufficient, praying with her pen that death might serve as the ultimate release into love, freeing her from the bonds of an inherently dark disposition. It is imagined as a fresh start where she can stand on level footing with her beloved. Through the alchemy of poetry, death has transmuted from personified shadow to the hope of transcendence.
Great poetry lends itself to a continual unfolding of meaning. While theory of mind allows a reader to see slightly past their own reflection, etymological and biographical analysis can overturn richer psychological soil. What does love mean to a woman who was denied it decade after decade? Browning tells her readers. It is a concept inseparable from death. Sometimes the two concepts are at odds, sometimes they dance, and sometimes they merge into an intimate oneness, but they are always inseparable in the heart and mind of a poet like Browning who fossilized the beauty of her brokenness for generations of careful readers then, now, and forever more to come.
Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 6th ed. London: Routledge, 2013.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Sonnets from the Portuguese: A Celebration of Love. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol.
- New York: Norton, 2012.
Partridge, Eric. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House, 1983.
Oxford University. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Glasgow: Oxford University Press, 1971.