‘Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers’, one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, is a fine love poem about her courtship and eventual marriage to her fellow poet, Robert Browning.
Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers,
So, in the like name of that love of ours,
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too,
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew
From my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers
Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue,
And wait thy weeding; yet here’s eglantine,
Here’s ivy!— take them, as I used to do
Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine.
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true,
And tell thy soul, their roots are left in mine.
‘Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers’ was first published in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, in 1850, although the poems that make up the sequence were written around five years earlier. It’s a little-known fact that the first ever sonnet sequence in English was written by a woman, and throughout history the sonnet sequence has tended to be associated with male poets: Petrarch, Sir Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, George Meredith. And although Barrett Browning’s title sounds as though she is translating poems written by some Portuguese sonneteer, that title Sonnets from the Portuguese was in fact a little in-joke: ‘Portuguese’ was Robert Browning’s affectionate nickname for Elizabeth, so these sonnets are from her and her alone: sonnets from Robert’s beloved ‘Portuguese’.
In terms of its form, ‘Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers’ is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. But unlike Petrarch’s medieval sonnets in the courtly love tradition, the relationship between the man and woman has been consummated in Barrett Browning’s poem. The courting has involved the gift of ‘many flowers’ – flowers, of course, are often associated with poetry, as the etymology of the term anthology demonstrates.
But is there also a nod to another poet in this floweriest of poems? Two allusions to William Shakespeare can be detected. Barrett Browning’s words ‘here’s eglantine, / Here’s ivy!— take them’ mimic Ophelia’s mad words from her poignant final scene in Hamlet, when she distributes flowers to the other characters present. But eglantine – which stands out in Barrett Browning’s line for its specificity – recalls not the tragic Hamlet but a romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
These two flowery lists may have helped to inspire ‘Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers’, but in the last analysis, the male poet who chiefly inspired Barrett Browning’s words was the man who called her his ‘Portuguese’ and who inspired all of the other sonnets from her sequence: Robert Browning.