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Featured Poem: Sonnet 13 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 22nd April 2013

This week's choice of Featured Poem comes from Helen Wilson, Get Into Reading Wirral Project Worker - an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet which has a lot to say about how Get Into Reading groups open up often surprising responses:

Last week I read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 13: And Wilt Thou Have Me fashion Into Speech with my Get Into Reading group at a local homeless hostel. We spent quite some time talking about what the hardest things are to say in life. One young man ventured ‘I’m sorry’ and another ‘I love you’, though both were keen to add, ‘but only if you mean it’. We talked about how it wasn’t the words themselves but the feelings propelling them that cause the most struggle and how perhaps unfortunately but inevitably, it is the very things we mean the most that are exactly those which may never get said.

I was particularly moved when a conversation broke out amongst the (all male) group about how they thought it was harder to be a man than a woman, with one member stating firmly ‘men are more sensitive than women and that’s a fact’. Many of the heads around the table nodded and someone else added, ‘it’s alright for you, you get to cry – we can’t do that’. This lead to a discussion about what it was to be ‘a man’ and many laughingly agreed how they often felt like women on the inside.

Two members went on to debate what the torch was – ‘is it like the love? Holding a torch for someone..?’ – and what was meant by ‘I drop it at thy feet’? One man suggested ‘like when you love someone and you tell them and you’re sort of on your knees?’

I’m not sure this is a conversation that would have taken place without the group acting as a kind of framework for such personal responses and it felt very much as though the poem was managing to find and speak for parts of the people present that, though very much alive, may otherwise go unvoiced. One man summed it up when he said to me afterwards ‘I like reading and it’s better getting it out, it just winds me up otherwise…’

Sonnet 13

And wilt thou have me fashion into speech
The love I bear thee, finding words enough,
And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough,
Between our faces, to cast light on each? –
I drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach
My hand to hold my spirit so far off
From myself – me –that I should bring thee proof
In words, of love hid in me out of reach.
Nay, let the silence of my womanhood
Commend my woman love to thy belief, -
Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,
And rend the garment of my life, in brief,
By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,
Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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