Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” are a collection of sonnets Browning wrote for her future husband, the poet Robert Browning. The 43 sonnets progress chronologically, mirroring her relationship with Browning, with the earlier poems expressing anxiety and doubts about her relationship; and the later ones becoming progressively more open and passionate in tone, mirroring her own love for her husband.
Sonnet I is one of the former, those in which Browning addresses her initial misgivings and anxieties about starting a relationship. She begins by referencing Theocritus’ poems, most likely his Idylls which dealt with pastoral life. She references these poems as “the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years” giving a sense of longing and admiration for that type of life. She quickly contrasts this musing of a happy life with her own melancholic reflection of her own sad life, saying a shadow had been flung across her by her sad years. This is most likely symbolic of E.B.B.’s loneliness up until she had met Robert Browning. The poem continues to climax toward a dark and ominous theme as she describes the “mystic Shape” moving up behind her (and presumably as she became lonelier and more depressed in life) and takes her by the hair. The poem climaxes when the voice of the Shape asks if she knows who now holds her, to which the speaker responds, Death. Upon the response of the voice that it is not Death, but Love that holds her, there is a great sensation of relief involved in the poem. The last line of the Shape’s responses forces the reader to re-analyze the last few lines and realize that the Shape itself was not impending death at the end of a sad life, but rather the surprising beginning of a new love, symbolic of E.B.B.’s new love she had found with Robert Browning.