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Sonnet 29: Love and Relationships Analysis

In Sonnet 29, the speaker discloses deep, romantic thoughts about a lover. In the poem, there is a metaphor of vines wrapping around a tree to represent the growing love and feeling closely bonded and intimate with the person.

The middle of the poem progresses this imagery, and by the end of the poem, the speaker concludes that when they are physically with their lover, they don’t feel so obsessive about them.

Poem

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.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1850)

Context

Elizabeth wrote this poem whilst she was courting Robert Browning, so it is assumed the poem is personal and was written about him. Elizabeth’s father did not allow her to marry Robert. When she met him, they pursued long letter writing back and forth – which her son later published in memoriam.

Elizabeth had spent time secretly writing romantic poetry, which she did not disclose until years after she and Robert married. It is rumoured that Robert once said he wasn’t keen on love poetry, and Elizabeth subsequently placed a pile of poems in front of him – hesitantly – asking what he thought. Robert thought his wife’s poetry was so good that he urged her to publish it.

Because she was a woman and it was more difficult for women of the time to become published, the pair of them produced a collection called ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’.  Sonnet 29 – I think of thee – was enclosed within this collection and was presumably written about Robert.

Language

  • Extended metaphor
  • Biblical connotations
  • Imagery
  • Alliteration / sibilance
  • First-person perspective

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem uses an extended metaphor throughout. This means there is figurative imagery where her growing feelings are continually likened to “wild vines” wrapping around a tree. The poem opens with an exclamatory tone:

“I think of thee!”

This provides an instant sense of excitement and momentum. The first-person perspective “I” introduces the personal aspect of the poem, whilst the second-person address of “thee” tells us that this is a personal poem.

The imagery begins with words such as “twine” and “bud” semantically suggesting that this “tree”/romance will grow. Perhaps it started small. Barrett Browning then writes:

“Put out broad leaves, and soon there’s nought to see”

This implies that she has thought about the lover so much, that she can’t really see him anymore: her vision of him is blurred. She describes a “straggling green which hides the wood” whereby the “wood” may tell us about her secret feelings or show concern that they don’t truly know each other yet.

The speaker pleads for the real presence of the lover to be felt when she says “I will not have my thoughts instead of thee” and “Renew thy presence”. The modal verb phrase “will not have” shows her determination, whilst “Renew” signifies life and links back to the extended metaphor. “Renew” perhaps also has biblical connotations of re-birth and hope for a new part of their relationship. The speaker continues to imply how her obsessive thoughts are suffocating her, when she begs for those thoughts to “Drop heavily down, – burst, shattered, everywhere!” She also mentions that the greenery “insphere[s]” her, showing how her mind is preoccupied with only thoughts of her lover.

By the end of the poem, the language remains simplistic as she describes becoming physically close to him. The subordinating conjunction “Because” indicates a turning point, when she follows this with the sentiment, “in this deep joy to see and hear thee, indicating she feels free and ‘real’ when she is physically with the person.

Structure

  • Exclamation
  • Triadic structure

Barrett Browning uses repeated exclamations throughout Sonnet 29 to indicate an expression of delight about her lover. The poem is titled “I think of thee!” which is also repeated in the opening line to show her excitement when thinking of her lover. The middle of the poem also says, “Who art dearer, better!” and later in the poem “burst, shattered, everywhere!” to illustrate the moments when she desperately wants to be with the person, rather than just thinking of them.

There is a turning point in the final three lines of the poem when she is finally with her lover in person.

Form

  • Petrarchan sonnet
  • Internal rhyme

This poem is written in the Petrarchan sonnet form. Petrarchan sonnets contain an octave (often two quatrains combined for a total of eight lines) followed by a sestet (six lines). As is typical of the sonnet form, iambic pentameter is used where there are lines using ten syllables (five stressed and five unstressed beats). This provides a rhythmic pattern to the poem and conforms to the form of traditional love poetry.

Perhaps the form of the poem itself represents an intensity in how it sounds: “Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should”. Petrarchan sonnets stem from Italian roots (rather than the English/Shakespearean form of a sonnet), so using this form can be seen as a nod to the tradition of love poetry.

Compare it to:

Love’s Philosophy – Both poems are short and concise, using relatively simplistic language to put across their message of love. Both poems contain imagery of nature, which represents romantic love. However, the poems have different outcomes: Love’s Philosophy leaves an unsatisfactory ending, whilst Sonnet 29 ends with the closure of the speaker’s desires.

Porphyria’s Lover – These poems compare with an unhealthy fixation; both contain natural imagery; both describe being fulfilled by the person being present romantically. In Sonnet 29, the speaker is aware of her obsessive feelings, whilst the speaker in Porphyria’s Lover is far less aware – and lacks remorse.

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