- “This Close Room”: Elizabeth Barrett’s Proximal Poetics in Sonnets from the Portuguese
“Could it be that heart & life were devastated to make room for you?”—Elizabeth Barrett Barrett to Robert Browning, November 17, 1845 1
At the end of Sonnets from the Portuguese Elizabeth Barrett likens her thoughts to flowers that have grown into verse, both seeming “as if they grew / In this close room” (Works 2: 44, ll. 3–4).2 In that phrase, “this close room,” she points to two different, though not entirely separate, spaces: the room she occupies in her father’s house, where she has lived, written, and been reawakened by an unexpected love; and the lyric room that is the sonnet itself, the fourteen-line stanza. Her room on Wimpole Street does not merely provide the poet with a space in which to write her sonnets but also becomes an integral part of their construction and an influential force in any experience of reading them; in addition, the experiences these sonnets record is often governed by that physical space. The poet dwells within a room that is figuratively represented as a bower, but the poetic production taking place in that room makes the figurative bower both a literary and a literal one. Speaking within both the literal and figurative “close” rooms, she proposes that the enclosed and solipsistic space of a traditionally strict verse form need not preclude intimacy with a beloved. Even though her sonnets are written in private as reflections upon her intimate meetings with Robert Browning in a “close room,” she imagines the lyric space as another room in which she may not only test out terms of proximity and distance but also create an alternate space in which they may meet. Yet, Barrett’s Euclidian sense of space clashes with an abstract one whereby the logic of the rooms she occupies and draws in verse comes into conflict with the illogic of the metaphysical spaces she has occupied in literature. The endeavor to reconcile the man standing beside her and the man in the imagined space of the text plays out in sonnet rooms that [End Page 67] exemplify this tension between the physical reality of place and the unconventional spatial logic of figurative settings. Barrett’s particular relationship to space and her spatial imagination, evident in her letters to Browning, inform not only the dynamics of enclosure and accommodation in Sonnets from the Portuguese but also its idiomatic poetics. Specifically, Barrett negotiates concerns with spatial configurations and relationships within a literary and literal space using what I call a proximal poetics whereby prepositional play, enjambment, and deictics create a linguistic topos of distance and intimacy.
This article focuses on how Sonnets from the Portuguese builds, and builds upon, a multi-dimensional language of space: the space between a female speaker and her beloved, the enclosed space of the sonnet room, and the real space in which those sonnets were written. Consideration of all three categories of space must attend to the complex dynamics of the Petrarchan tradition in which Barrett writes.3 Unlike the speakers in traditional amatory sonnet sequences by Petrarch and Dante who maintain a distance from their object of affection, Barrett speaks from a position in which consummation is a viable option. While we cannot locate moments in Petrarch’s sonnets where lovers meet, share intimate spaces, hold hands, or kiss, such physical proximity is the characteristic crux of Sonnets from the Portuguese. Indeed, traditional amatory verse depends upon maintaining a breach between subject and object because such unfulfilled desires generate the necessary tension for poetic production. In contrast, the tension in Barrett’s sonnet sequence arises precisely from the fact that the distance between subject and object cannot be sustained and, indeed, has already collapsed; the speaker cannot hold the beloved at a distance because he places himself close to her. Consequently, Sonnets from the Portuguese challenges putative understandings of lyric subjectivity and address, particularly as it relates to a Petrarchan tradition of sonnet writing, in the way it turns a self-oriented space into a discursive one.
Likewise, normative definitions of lyric collide with assumed understandings of the Petrarchan sonnet...