Barrett Browning, Elizabeth

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Jan-24-2023


Published in 1844, "Grief" is one of several sonnets Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB), the oldest of twelve children, wrote following the death of her 33 year old beloved brother and immediately younger sibling, Edward (nicknamed "Bro"), by drowning in 1840. (Another brother, Samuel, had also died, 5 months earlier at age 28, in Cinnamon Hill, the family's estate in Jamaica, from a fever.) The other sonnets reflecting the numbing grief EBB felt (as expressed in her letters) after Bro's death are "Tears" and "Substitution". All were published in her 1844 Poems.

"Grief" is a Petrarchan sonnet describing the distinction between the poet's "hopeless grief" and the grief of men "incredulous of despair". She further instructs "deep-hearted man" to adopt the poet's form of grief, to "express/Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death". This "silence like to death" reflects EBB's movement to speechlessness and silence following Bro's death. (ref = Billone)


This sonnet begins very atypically for Elizabeth Barrett Browning who, like Edna St. Vincent Millay, was apparently born with the ability to spin very smooth sonnets flowing gently across instances of enjambment reading like casual spoken discourse. The beginning of the first line, "I tell you", is uncharacteristically colloquial yet effective in immediately establishing a relationship with the reader that seems almost conversational, collegial and simultaneously confidential. Although the poet is taking a stance of authority, she carries it off with no perceived disdain or supercilious tone. Rather, the reader is given to understand, implicitly, that the poet is speaking from experience, which may be true since most students of the poetry of EBB believe that she wrote this poem as a personal response to her brother's recent death by drowning.

The initial couplet reflects the poet's familiarity with Latin (mostly self-taught) since "hopeless" in line 1 is echoed, but archly in contradiction ("incredulous of"), in "despair" which derives etymologically from the Latin "desperare" meaning "to lose hope". In fact, the entire sonnet is a pendulum of opposites - contrasts in ways of grieving and ways of relieving grief.

The volta of this sonnet begins, most unusually, midway through line 8 rather than its customary origin, i.e., the beginning of line 9. This unexpected violation of the Petrarchan formula in no way lessens the success of the sestet that follows, comparing such a "hopeless grief" with the immobility and apparent stolidity of a statute whose death-like reaction to grief is beautifully described as a "statue set/In everlasting watch and moveless woe". (This line will remind anyone who has heard the song "Swamp" by The Talking Heads of the line "All those beauties in solid motion." [ref]) Of course, the lines "Most like a monumental statue set/In everlasting watch and moveless woe,/Till itself crumble to the dust beneath!" immediately recall "Ozymandias" by Shelley, a poem published only 26 years earlier and one that EBB no doubt knew well.

This is an interesting example of one poet enlisting another poet's sonnet to re-inforce her own simile, an oblique quotation as it were. As such it is a powerful and highly economical allusion, augmenting her sonnet's impact by another's 14 lines, an effective recruitment costing her only three lines of her own. One pictures Shelley's Ozymandias weeping tearlessly but, like all grief, eventually yielding to the passage of time. EBB's "monumental statue", however, symbolizing "hopeless grief", does not visibly weep. Indeed, it is not until the very last line that we arrive at perhaps the load-bearing keystone of this poem: the type of grief the poet feels is "hopeless", in part, because of its constrained, internalized and suppressed emotion, imprisoned as it is within its marble exterior, "like to death", suggesting a sarcophagus. If the statue were able to cry, the poet implies, it would be therapeutic, releasing its grief from its immobility. This almost obsessive fascination with an incapacitating grief and adamantine death that is solid and marmoreal reminds one of the poetry of Thomas James, in this database.

Billone is of the opinion that "Grief" also has in mind Wordsworth's 1802 sonnet, "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802", adducing similar words and lines in both sonnets. While both poets remark on the power of silence, EBB's use of "silent" and "bare" (a composite word in EBB but two juxtaposed adjectives in Wordsworth) reflects a  "negativity [that] will not inspire a self-affirmative turn through the sublime" that we see in Wordsworth's sonnet. [billone]

This poem and various commentaries on it, like those of Billone and Leighton, would prove useful in teaching the grief response and bereavement and the difference between "normal" bereavement--

...  incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air,
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach

--a grief that is understandable and violent at times but temporary, and the bereavement that we witness in this poem:

Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death;
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe

--in other words, a pathologic grief that is petrifying and, like the death it is attempting to overcome, endless. In effect her grief over death has become a death-in-life.



Billone, Amy. "" In silence like to death": Elizabeth Barrett's sonnet turn." Victorian Poetry 39.4 (2001): 533-550.

Talking Heads
accessed November 29, 2022

Leighton Angela: Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Bloomington, Indiana University Press 1986.