Victorian Poetry Network "much to do with Victorian poetry"

Poem of the Month March
Posted by



I think of thee !—and all my Soul is made
The subject of that one most Sovereign Thought:
That Thought is me!—thus thou art me!—sole sought
And only chosen one!—the adored!—the obeyed!—
That Thought, methinks, when Life must flower-like fade,
Shall first rise up to heaven!—sublimely fraught
With Immortality, not then first taught,—
Even here its own!—unchanging—undecayed!—
That Thought shall soar up as my Soul!—and shine
A Star, my Being’s boundless worlds to light
Up to the Heights o’ the Highest!—the Divine
Thought!—my chief Thought!—thou’rt now an Angel bright,
And shalt be ever! Canst thou then be mine?—
Proud—proud am I of thee, and of thy mystic might!

Emmeline Stuart-Wortley, from Sonnets written chiefly during a tour through Holland, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and Hungary (1839), p. 132.

(Full text:

I came across this poem while looking for the “grandmothers” that Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously did not find. Stuart-Wortley’s 1839 volume is a heterogeneous collection of some 170 sonnets, most of them in the tradition of Bowles and Wordsworth commemorating places visited by the author, curiously intertwined with individual sonnets on various subjects and an amatory sequence from ‘Inez to Manuel’. The introduction dwells elaborately on the journey, but does not account for the extra material, making its piecemeal injection into the volume all the more surprising. Like Sonnets from the Portuguese, the sequence involves a woman and a man who are at the same time each other’s lover and muse, subject and object. Yet because of their timeless setting and obvious theatricality, reminiscent of Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon, the Petrarchan imagery of sorrow and enslavement used by Inez remains firmly metaphorical, unlikely to “embarrass” any readers.

At the same time, Stuart-Wortley constructs counter-voices that balance the codified discourse of Petrarchism with psychological depth. Like Barrett Browning, she is obsessed with the intricate mechanisms of the mind. Adela Pinch has said of Sonnets from the Portuguese that it is “an anxious meditation” on what it means “to turn a person into a thought”: “Is fitting a person to one’s mental space to miniaturize, or to aggrandize him?” (Pinch, Adela. ‘Thinking About the Other in Romantic Love.’ Romantic Circles Praxis Series (April 1998). 17 November 2009 <>, 8.) According to Pinch, “the tensions among thinking, knowing, and loving … come to a crisis” in sonnet 29:

I think of thee! – my thoughts do twine and bud

About thee, as will vines about a tree, –

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

Except the straggling green which hides the wood. (29:1–4)

As ‘Inez’ in the sonnet quoted above, Stuart-Wortley stages a remarkably similar moment of self-consciousness. While the female poet in Barrett Browning’s sonnet shrinks back at the violence of her own thoughts and begs her lover to ‘renew’ his ‘presence’ (29:8), Inez passionately believes that when ‘Life … flower-like fade[s],’ that one thought ‘Shall first rise up to heaven! – sublimely fraught / With Immortality’ (132:5–7). At the same time, in some of the others sonnets in the volume, Stuart-Wortley points out that an enamoured mind can be a source of anxiety as well, when ‘Too dangerous … its deep enchantments seem’ (82:5). She admits: ‘I cannot rule my thoughts that round one theme / Hang, like swarming bees, till All grow One,’ and ‘each rising sun / Sees me still drifting farther down the … fearful stream of Passion’ (82:1–2, 7–9).

Stuart-Wortley is not the only one who would make a good (grand)mother to EBB: Felicia Hemans, Anne Bannerman, Mary Bryan, Caroline Norton all broached topics that EBB later addressed in Sonnets from the Portuguese, often using remarkably similar imagery and phraseology.

Most recent discussions of EBB’s sonnets turn straight to the Renaissance or to male Romanticism for her primary models. But perhaps we did so at the expense of more immediate precursors?

[This post draws on a chapter in my book Lives of the Sonnet, 1787-1895. Genre, Gender and Criticism (Ashgate, 2011), entitled “Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese and Women’s Sonnets of the 1800s-1840s.”]

Leave a Reply