‘If thou must love me, let it be for nought/Except for love’s sake only’. What was ‘love’s sake,’ and how was it to be expressed? Conventionally it was through the idealised and equally limiting form of the Petrarchan sonnet. Its tight knit structure of metre, rhyme and lineation however left the space for expression severely restricted. The relationships in the three sonnets stated, nethertheless use this structure, only to undermine it in particular ways, tying its ‘blue thread’ of convention into a complicated knot.
This knot when unwound, shows how each of the sonnets confronts the limitations of the conventional sonnet form, using them either to tell their lover how they feel, or to explore an illicit affair, or even the breakdown of a marriage. Traditionally the sonnet is fourteen lines long, and in iambic pentameter. Barret-Browning uses this metrical convention to her advantage, ensuring that the alterations that she makes enhance her own voice. Refusing to ‘fall in well’ with the limiting sonnet tradition, she deducts from her fourth line a syllable, leaving only nine instead of the traditional ten.
She is demonstrating that as a woman she does not fit in to the male perspective. Instead the syllable is placed in the last line, to create a hyper-beat. ‘Eternity’, although constrained by the final full-stop is given the freedom to push past the limitation of the sonnet, and exist outside it. The second sonnet, also uses a hyper-beat at the end of the octave, the ‘hour-glass’ which is also made to settle on a feminine ending, indicats that he is pushing time past its limtis, that it is running out for the illicit lovers, whereas the feminine ending shows that the ‘hour-glass’ is fragile and can easily be broken.
What is not broken is the strong willed tone of the lady in the fist sonnet. Conventionally written by a male, the sonnet excluded the female voice by use of male-forged criteria of excellence. Rossetti certainly sees the lady in his life in his own terms. She is passive, physically lying ‘in the long fresh grass’, and the characteristics only allowed to her are bodily, her ‘finger-points’ and her ‘eyes’. Their time together is even compared to being sent from ‘above’, giving their romance a conventional divine status.
It starts dreamingly, and the emphasis on the natural, the growth of a relationship, possibly even with the ‘long fresh grass’. Yet it must be remembered that this sonnet is concerned solely with an illicit relationship, and that ultimately what the sonnet is describing is unnatural and deceitful. Covered in the ‘long fresh grass’ they are ultimately hiding away, though in an open ‘pasture’. The ‘billowing sky’ however, with its ‘gloom’s’ hints at the betrayal that their relationship is foundered on. Despite this the diction is certainly idealised, with similes comparing her to ‘rosy blooms’, you can almost smell her sweetness.
With a blazon of the female’s physical beauties, such as in the Petrarchan sonnet convention, with the lady’s ‘coral lips’ and ‘pearly teeth’, Rossetti personifies onto his lover’s the ability to ‘smile’ and her finger-tips to ‘look’, which all suggest hyperbolic idealisation. The convention is not limiting here because it enables him to describe his lover, although at the expense of erasing the true lady, and like the frustrated wooer of the sonnet tradition, he shows a tendency to be dramatic when he feels that time is running out. ‘Oh!’, he exclaims at the end of the sonnet, as if the limitations of the sonnet, the fact that it has to be finished in fourteen lines, overwhelms him, needing only to ‘clasp’ the last ‘thread’ of the sonnet to his ‘heart’.
In fact this dramatic turn juxtaposes with the ‘peace’ in line three of the sonnet, and there is almost desperate tone of these words. Yet Barrett-Browning turns this sweet smelling rose sour. She rebukes, through a quite fierce-full tone, such a ‘pleasant ease of such a day’. She refuses that her lover should use her as an object of decoration.
‘Do not say’, three monosyllables that hit home the power behind the voice that ‘her smile-her look-her way’ are all that she is to be loved for. I am much more that, you can hear her shout, and will not allow herself to be trapped in some artificial, insincere ‘trick of thought’. The punctuation, hence the dashes demonstrate how distance convention is from real love, in fact if she were described in such hyperbolic terms it would only amount to ‘nought’. The lady of Meredith’s poem however has neither the strength of the first nor the sweetness of the second.
Whereas the idealised ‘hour-glass’ figure of the second lady can stretch her fingers quite freely in the grass, one can only imagine that Meredith’s lady is covering her face with her equally stretched fingers. It is a sonnet that explores the torments of the heart, the tone evoking misery and isolation. With the woman enclosed in her bedroom, society’s legacy for keeping in the feelings, the male is equally distance, interpreting her ‘low sobs’, that reverberate through the lengthened sonnet as ‘strange’.
A word that some how sums up the arrogance of the repeated masculine (stressed) line endings throughout the poem. It may be interesting to note the ‘Modern Love’ does not once, despite its ironic title (hence what love has evovled to) mention the word love. His diction is certainly not conventional to the traditional sonnet form. There is no mention of ‘pearly teeth’, or ‘coral lips’; in fact she not once described as beautiful, only as ‘stone-still’, her cries ‘dreadfully venomous to him’.
The conventional diction is turned almost viciously around, to face the ‘long darkness’ of love, and more in line with a tragedy the sonnet ends with death, the reader left to imagine the ‘marriage- tomb’. The rhyme scheme of the traditional sonnet, ‘abbaabbacdecde’ is also restricting. The third poem defies this convention, enhancing the tragic tone with regimented 4-arched rhymed quatrains, ‘abbaabbaabba’, which later became known as Meredithean sonnets, (Lennard 1996, p. 37). It enforces the idea that this marriage is no longer harmonious but drawn out and repetitive.
Broken into an octave and a sestet, the first and second both begin with the ‘abab’ rhyme only to distort the traditional ‘cdecde’ in the final sestet. Of the first the eleventh and fourteenth lines do not rhyme, and again this may show that love is not always poetry, ‘eternity’ is not just for a moment where it can sound good but, as it implies, forever. There is also an internal rhyme, between ‘only’ and gently’ which may indicate the unheard melody (Lennard 1999, p. 95) of the female personae of the poem, thus she is caught up in the structure of the sonnet.
This idea of being caught up in the convention also features in the second sonnet. He introduces at the beginning of the sestet a rhyming couplet, where conventionally a resolution was sought for the problem of the octave. Having reminded himself of the ‘hour-glass’, he suddenly wants to end the sonnet on a harmonious note, knowing that if he continues he will have to end his time with his lover. Thus the rhyming couplets appear to be a delay technique to the final fourteenth line.