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Grief

How do Victorian Era attitudes towards death and grief differ from our own? In what ways is grief a universal human experience that transcends time, place, and culture? Explore this key theme through Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘Grief’ (1844).

Grief’ by Elizabeth

Published in

1844

Written by

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Form/style

Petrarchan sonnet

Meter

Iambic pentameter

Rhyme scheme

ABBA ABBA CDECDE

Poetic devices

Simile and synonyms

Frequently noted imagery

Death, the celestial, stone, barrenness

Tone

Informative and authoritative

Key themes

Grief and death

The context of Grief

Here, we will be considering the biographical, historical, and literary contexts of the poem.

Biographical context

The poet, at the time of writing, was familiar with grief. When she was twenty, Elizabeth Barrett Browning mourned the death of her mother with her ten siblings and their father. Then, in 1840, she lost two of her brothers, Samuel and Edward, within mere months of one another.

Her brother Samuel had been sent to help run their father’s plantations in Jamaica. He succumbed to a fever in February 1840. Her brother Edward died in a sailing accident in Torquay in July. Barrett Browning is reported to have felt a sense of survivor’s guilt regarding the death of Edward. She suffered from lung issues, and her brother accompanied her to the seaside town so she could benefit from the clean air. Among her many siblings, the two were very close, and she nicknamed him ‘bro’. After his death, she returned to Wimpole Street in London and became reclusive, barely leaving her room.

This poem, published in 1844, is widely believed to have been written shortly after her beloved brother Edward’s death.

Historical context

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a poet of the Victorian era. There was a much higher mortality rate in this time period than in modern times, and the literature of the Victorian era is known for its focus on death and grief.

Referred to by some as a ‘cult of death’, the Victorians were interested in the process of dying, death, and grief. Grieving friends, spouses, and relations often kept mementoes, such as hair clippings, and had photographs taken of fresh corpses in lifelike poses.

Literary context

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (18061861) lived during the time of the Romantic literary movement as well as the Victorian era (18371901). However, her poetry can be interpreted as belonging to the Romantic period (17851832).

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility (William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1801).

Widely considered one of the founders of Romanticism, William Wordsworth defined poetry in this way. In ‘Grief’, the speaker of the poem appears to be reflecting, in an informative manner, upon the nature of the raw emotion of grief.

How else do you think ‘Grief’ (1844) fits with Wordsworth’s thoughts about poetry?

Features of Romanticism in Grief

Features

Supporting quotations

Explanations

The exploration and expression of emotion and feeling.

shrieking and reproach

Deep-hearted man, express Grief for thy dead in silence like to death

The poet contrasts the different stages and expressions of grief.

The sublime, use of the imagination to convey intangible concepts.1

Full desertness,

In souls as countries

The poet explores the nature of the human soul.

A melancholy mood.

In everlasting watch and moveless woe.

In keeping with the key themes of the poem, death and grief, the mood is melancholy.

The supernatural/celestial.

Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare

Of the absolute heavens.

Beat upward to God’s throne

In dealing with the theme of death and grief, Browning makes reference to the Christian God and his residence.

Analysis of Grief

After reading the poem, try to unpack the various layers of meaning by examining its themes as well as its form and structure.

The poem

I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;

That only men incredulous of despair,

Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air

Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access

Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,

In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare

Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare

Of the absolute heavens. Deep-hearted man, express

Grief for thy dead in silence like to death—

Most like a monumental statue set

In everlasting watch and moveless woe

Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.

Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:

If it could weep, it could arise and go.

GriefLiterary and poetic devices

Elizabeth Barret Browning uses imagery throughout this sonnet that reminds the reader of death. This imagery also helps the reader understand the speaker’s perspective on the expression of different kinds of grief.

She also makes use of simile to compare a concept, raw grief, to a tangible object, a statue. The poet also employs a variety of synonyms for grief throughout the poem, emphasising the focus on this emotion.

Simile: a simile is a comparison that compares one thing to another using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’.1 For example, he is as cunning as a fox’.

Imagery: the use of figurative language to create a picture for the reader in their minds eye. Imagery often appeals to the senses.1

Synonym: an alternative word choice that has the same or a highly similar meaning to the original word.1

Barrett Browning refers to the Christian concepts of heaven and God through imagery of the celestial. This is first seen in the lines through the midnight air Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access. Christian theology proclaims that God is the ruler of heaven and that the souls of good people dwell there. This explains the grieving cry upwards to the heavens, where they hope their departed loved ones have gone.

Celestial imagery is repeated in the lines Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare Of the absolute heavens. This references the theological concept that the heavens are occupied by God, the angels, and the deceased, and that these celestial entities watch over the living.

Barrett Browning uses imagery that conjures up the concept of barrenness, such as Full desertness, the dust, and silent-bare. This imagery reflects the sense of emotional hollowness that deep grief brings.

The imagery of stone is significant because it represents the expression of grief in its rawest form. It is used poignantly in the lines like a monumental statue set In everlasting watch and moveless woe’. Here, the immobilising nature of grief in the bereaved is exaggerated. It is compared to a statue through the use of a simile. This concept is also shown through the lines the marble eyelids are not wet’, which express the speaker’s view that it is impossible to summon tears whilst in the deepest throes of grief.

Barrett Browning uses the term grief and its synonyms, including despair and woe. This ensures the poems focus remains on this emotion.

Poetic devices

Here, we will be considering the poem’s title, form, structure, and rhyme scheme.

Title

The title, ‘Grief’, is a simple but effective way of informing the reader of the poem’s key theme.

Form

‘Grief’ is a Petrarchan sonnet.

The Petrarchan sonnet was named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca and is also known as the Italian Sonnet. It features fourteen lines and usually focuses on one key theme.1 The Petrarchan sonnet is divided up into two parts, the first one being an octave and the second part being a sestet. The sestet is usually marked by a volta’, a turn in the idea or thought in the poem.

In prose, we use paragraphs to break up texts. A new paragraph often features a new idea. How can a poet use the structure of the poem to convey a change in direction?

Structure

Octave: coming from ‘octava’, meaning the eighth part, an octave can be a poem of eight lines, a stanza of eight lines, or eight lines within a poem.1

Sestet: coming from ‘sestetto’, meaning six, a sestet refers to the last six lines of a Petrarchan sonnet and can also refer to a stanza of six lines.1

Turn or ‘volta’: the introduction of a new concept or the clarification of an existing idea within the poem found in the latter part of the poem.1

This poem is fourteen lines long and consists of an octave and a sestet.

In the octave, the speaker informs the reader of the form that hopeless grief takes. She describes it as passionless and compares it to the noisy outbursts often associated with the bereaved. The speaker suggests that those who are deeply affected by grief are unable to make noisy shows of their feelings. The speaker further expresses the hollowness of spirit and the silence of those grieving.

In the sestet, the speaker reaffirms that those who are suffering from the rawest form of grief are not able to outwardly express this with tears, wailing, and other effusive outward expressions of emotion: If it could weep, it could arise and go. In this final line, Barrett Browning suggests that being able to cry is the first step in being able to move on from the depths of hopeless grief. The speaker suggests that being able to cry releases the bereaved from the darkest depths of grief.

Rhyme scheme

This poem uses iambic pentameter and features the rhyme scheme that is typical of Petrarchan sonnets: ABBA CDDC EFGEFG.

The iambic foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, for example, destroy. When the iambic foot repeats five times, it is called iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is the most commonly used meter in poetry.

The themes of Grief

Petrarchan sonnets usually deal with one key concept. In the case of ‘Grief’, it is the linked themes of grief and death. Those grieving are separated into two groups, the silent and the noisy. The speaker expands upon their viewpoint regarding the different kinds of grief, suggesting those in the deepest clutches of grief are silent and consumed by their feelings.

Grief - Key takeaways

  • ‘Grief’ (1844) is thought to have been drawn from the poet’s own experiences of bereavement, having lost two brothers within months of each other.

  • ‘Grief’ is a Petrarchan sonnet with a conclusive turn in its final line.

  • This poem focuses on grief, exploring the different stages that the bereaved pass through as they come to terms with the loss of their loved ones.

  • The poem expresses the mismatch between feelings and their outward expression often experienced during bereavement.

  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a Romantic poet.

References

1 Collins Dictionary (Collins, 2022).

Frequently Asked Questions about Grief

The main theme of the poem ‘Grief’ is grief.

‘Grief’ was written in 1844.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the poem ‘Grief’.

The meaning of the poem can be interpreted as an explanation of the deepest stage of raw grief.

The poet’s personal bereavements.

Final Grief Quiz

Question

Which type of poem is 'Grief' (1844)?

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Answer

A Petrarchan sonnet.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT imagery used in 'Grief' (1844)?

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Answer

The sea.

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Question

Elizabeth Barrett Browning had experienced personal bereavements prior to writing 'Grief' (1844).

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Answer

True.

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Question

How many lines long is 'Grief' (1844)?

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Answer

14.

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Question

How many lines long is a sestet?

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Answer

6.

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Question

How many lines is an octave?

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Answer

8.

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Question

What is a 'turn'?

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Answer

A new concept or a clarification of a concept introduced towards the very end of a poem. 

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Question

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a Romantic poet.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a characteristic of Romanticism?

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Answer

An appeal to the five senses.

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Question

How many themes do Petrarchan sonnets usually explore?

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Answer

1.

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Question

Elizabeth Barrett Browning felt partially responsible for her brother Edward's death.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Elizabeth Barrett Browning felt partially responsible for her brother Samuel's death.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Which best describes the tone of the poem?

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Answer

Informative and authoritative. 

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Question

What device does the poet use to compare the grief of the bereaved to a marble statue?

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Answer

Simile.

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Question

What does the poem suggest is the first step towards recovering from the deepest form of grief?

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Answer

Being able to cry.

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