In the years before their marriage Elizabeth Barrett wrote forty-four sonnets to Robert Browning. Although she did not want to publish them, being somewhat bashful about their extremely personal tone, he persuaded her. Still, in order to somewhat distance herself from them she gave the collection the inaccurate title of Sonnets From the Portuguese.
They are, as her husband told her, the best sonnets in English since Shakespeare. And, much more than Shakespeare's sonnets, they are a series rather than simply a collection. To some extent Shakespeare's sonnets should be read roughly in order and in context with one another. To a much greater extent Barrrett's sonnets should be read strictly in order. It is no accident that they often begin with connecting words such as "But," "Yet," "And," or "Indeed." They each, as sonnets should, function perfectly well individually, yet they also build on each other and sometimes seem to argue with each other. This is as it should be, for one who is wrestling with all of the contrary thoughts, dreams and fears of love.
Together with the sonnets of Sir Philip Sydney and Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett gives an exellent example of what Alexander Pope wrote:
"True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As they move easiest who have learned to dance."
For them the strict rules of the sonnet provided (not restricted) the freedom that they craved for their most personal poetry. By moving within the steps of the dance, they were freed to explore the extremes of their emotions "when feeling out of sight for the ends of Being and ideal Grace."
Here is the first from the series.
I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
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. Straightway I was 'ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,--
'Guess now who holds thee?'--'Death,' I said. But, there,
The silver answer rang,--'Not Death, but Love.'