“Sonnet 24: Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is part of her collection of poems entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese. The collection of 44 sonnets was published in 1850 and dedicated to her husband, the poet Robert Browning. Like the other sonnets in the collection, “Sonnet 24” centers on the speaker’s feelings for her lover and bears religious references that suggest divine protection of her love.
“Sonnet 24” is a love poem written from the perspective of a woman to her lover—presumably, her husband. It is written in iambic pentameter and follows the Petrarchan sonnet tradition: 14 lines comprised of an octet followed by a sestet. At the poem’s outset, the speaker describes the problems of the world as easily contained within a closed hand—the hand of love. As the sonnet progresses, the speaker details her belief in both the love of God and the love she shares with her husband. The love of her husband provides a shield against the ill deeds of others. Divine love protects all the living creatures of the world, and the speaker declares her unshakeable belief that the couple’s love is God-given as well. On a grander scheme, the speaker seems to suggest that love is the only antidote for all the suffering in the world and that she hopes humanity will be saved by it.
Barrett Browning composed Sonnets from the Portuguese during her courtship with her husband. While they exchanged 600 personal letters before their marriage, Barrett Browning kept her sonnets to herself and did not show them to her husband until three years into their marriage. Eventually, he persuaded her to publish them. The poems were met with a lukewarm reception, despite the fact that Barrett Browning had already established a positive literary reputation. Many critics believed that the poet had attempted to make the volume look like the translation of another poet’s work so as to make the poems appear less personal. However, subsequent critics discovered that Robert Browning actually referred to his wife as his “little Portuguese” as a term of endearment. When the public became aware of her real-life love story with her husband—fueled by critics’ reviews of the work and later cemented by the publication of their personal letters in 1899 by the Brownings’ son—the sonnets became more popular among readers. Once the autobiographical nature of the volume came to light, the Victorians viewed the sonnets more favorably, as a testament to a real-life couple’s enduring love story. However, some critics viewed the love letters as stronger and more honest than the sonnets. A 1906 article claimed that Barrett Browning’s poetry lacked completion but that she herself was a “complete woman.” Elizabeth Porter Gould further supports this notion by stating that the letters are far more powerful than the less-interesting sonnets. Nonetheless, the publication of this volume cemented Barrett Browning’s enduring reputation as a poet who immortalized her own love story in verse.