(Re)gendering Petrarch: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese

Marianne Van RemoortelUniversity of Ghent
Vol. 25, No. 2 (Fall 2006), 247-266

This essay offers an explanation for the tendency of Sonnets from the Portuguese to polarize readers into camps that are either entirely positive or negative: the conflict between literal and metaphorical meaning exemplified by the text. A close examination of Petrarch’s Rime sparse, the origin of the sonnet form, reveals the author’s use of poetic conventions to elevate his own subjectivity at the expense of objectifying and silencing the Laura of his poems. In her own sonnets, Barrett Browning manipulates these same conventions in order to prevent a similar objectification from happening to her. For example, Petrarch relegates Laura to passivity through discussing her body in parts, composing elaborate metaphors about one single beautiful attribute at a time. Barrett Browning retains her active nature through describing her own body as unattractive and maimed by illness, characteristics that forestall the dissection of her body in metaphorical language. However, this essay notes that Barrett Browning’s subversive manipulation of traditional Petrarchan metaphor also corresponds to the literal situation of Victorian women. Thus, identical passages from Sonnets of the Portuguese can either be read as Barrett Browning’s revolutionary reworking of the sonnet form or as her passive acceptance of her role as a Victorian woman, depending on the reader’s frame of reference.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]