Goth Sonnets

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1850

Once upon a time in Italy, Robert Browning sat scrutinizing a poem in progress. As he plumbed the depths of his brain for the exact word to fit his meaning and his meter, he heard the quick pitter-patter of feet lightly descending the stairs. Before he could turn around, he felt the pressure of a hand on his shoulder, warning him not to look behind him. His wife slid her hand into his pocket, deposited a packet and fled. He saw only the swish of her skirt and a hint of crimson cheek through her thick hair as she retreated to a room of her own. Intrigued, and probably a bit aroused, Robert hastily pulled the papers from his pocket and became the first person to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Robert Browning had to convince Elizabeth (let’s call her EBB) to publish the poems. She was hesitant to allow the public to read the deeply personal love poems she wrote to her husband. So, they titled them Sonnets from the Portuguese and pretended that she discovered them and translated them. I think of them as EBB’s Goth Sonnets because she her tone is self-effacing and melancholy. She describes herself as a drooping, tragic, gloom-monster who was destined to a life of weeping misery until Robert Browning shined his brilliant, amethyst light on her.

I always want to call Robert Browning “Robert Barrett Browning,” because it seems logical for married poets to exchange names as well as aesthetic and intellectual ideas. Also, Elizabeth was older, wealthier, higher class and more professionally successful than her husband at the time of their marriage. But, ya know, gender issues.

Without those pesky gender issues EBB might have been named poet laureate over Tennyson. She was quite influential in her time, to the point that she influenced child labor laws. Through poetry. Poetry!

The most famous sonnet is number 43:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

The sonnets are all very similar. I recommend them to people who are looking for poetry that represents love in an optimistic light. Most poets like to write about sad, bitter, destructive, doomed, tragic love. Sonnets from the Portuguese conveys love as spiritually uplifting and healing. I know that doesn’t sound Goth, but the trick is that while EBB describes herself as sad, love is the light that lifts her up out of her sadness. So, yes these poems have notes of melancholy, but they still depict love positively.

You might like Sonnets from the Portuguese if:

  • you like poems about love.
  • you’re secretly Goth inside.
  • you’re interested in real life romance between literary figures.

You might not like Sonnets from the Portuguese if:

  • you have no time for self-deprecation.
  • you’re just not that into sonnets.

Final thoughts: EBB was a talented poet. If you like poetry, you should read some of hers. Also, Valentine’s Day is coming up. There’s still time to embroider a sonnet onto a pillow for your loved one. Cuz who doesn’t love a pillow with a sonnet embroidered on it. (internal feminine rhyme, y’all)

Sarah Wentworth Morton


Sarah Wentworth Morton, poems, late 1700s

Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton was such a popular poetess in her day that she earned the moniker “American Sappho.”  If you have read any Sappho, you will understand the magnitude of that compliment.  As a native Bostonian, Morton’s poems contain distinctly American subject matter.   I read just two of her poems, the epic Ouabi and her most remembered work The African Chief. 

The African Chief is a stridently anit-slavery poem.  Morton laments the death of a captured African chief.

Ouabi is an epic poem in four cantos.  The story is essentially that of the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot  if Lancelot were a strapping young European who abandons society to wander in the North American wilderness and is taken in by a kind, wise and powerful Indian chief.  The Lancelot figure then of course falls in love with the chief’s lovely bride.  Drama ensues.  Morton’s compassionate yet romanticized view of Native Americans is certainly out of date and may be why this poem has been largely forgotten.  However, she writes incredibly beautiful verse.  Her meter and rhyme are impeccable and unlike Freneau, the last poet reviewed on this blog, she achieves lovely style without needing to twist her sentences into Yoda-like syntax.

A Quote from Ouabi:

Her limbs were straighter than the mountain pine,

Her hair far blacker than the raven’s wing;

Beauty had lent her form the waving line,

Her breath gave fragrance to the balmy spring.

You might like the poetry of Sarah Wentworth Morton if:

  • you like epic poems.
  • you are interested in 18th century attitudes toward minorities.

You might not like the poetry of Sarah Wentworth Morton if

  • you are offended by 18th century attitudes toward minorities.

Final thoughts: Morton writes beautiful poetry.  Her subject matter is controversial and whether you find her perspective refreshing (she’s obviously in favor of better treatment of minorities) or offensive, her poems are certain to arouse some uncomfortable feelings.

A Modest Proposal


Jonathon Swift is the poster boy for satire.  Gulliver’s Travels is probably the most famous work of satire in the English language.  I read that in high school, so I put Swift’s second most notorious work on The Book List: A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden on their Parents or their Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick (1729).  You know, the one about eating children.

Swift’s parents were English, but he spent most of his life in Ireland.  He was outraged by British exploitation of the Irish people.  In A Modest Proposal Swift satirizes the barbarous treatment of the Irish by suggesting that poor Irish mothers sell their babies to the wealthy for food.  He defends his proposal in grizzly and hilarious detail: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”  I love that he gets his information on cannibalism from an American.  We were considered uncivilized barbarians at that time, I suppose.

I am not going to say much else about A Modest Proposal, because it is only about eight pages long.  So, if you are interested at all, you might as well read it yourself.  It’s worth reading simply because it is so frequently referenced, in my all-time favorite episode of Sealab 2021, for example.

Favorite Snippet:

 A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

You might like this pamphlet if:

  • you have a dark sense of humor.
  • you liked Gulliver’s Travels.
  • you like biting political satire.
  • you like the instant gratification of reading things that are short.
  • you are interested in 18th century Ireland.


You might not like this pamphlet if:

  • you can’t take a joke.


Final thoughts: Just read it.


Journal of the Plague Year by a million little Daniel Defoes


Daniel Defoe was kind of whacky.  I didn’t know him personally, but considered from our current perception of literary genre and journalistic integrity (not that I think journalistic integrity is a thing that exists) he was wild and crazy.  In the early 1720s Defoe wrote a book about the Great Plague outbreak of 1665.  He published it under the initials H.F. and claimed that it was written just after the outbreak.  The narrator is a grown man who stayed in London for the duration of the “visitation.”  Defoe himself was five years old in 1665 and fled to the countryside with his family.  See what he did there?  He published a historical novel and claimed it was non-fiction.  Sound familiar?  Are you outraged?

I have always thought readers these days are too hung up on what things are “true” or “real” and what things are “fiction.”  I heard Tim O’Brien read at Arlington Public Library.  He said he is confused by all the people who ask him which parts of The Things They Carried are true.  Yes, the book is about Vietnam.  Yes, he was there.  But it’s all fiction and he says it is closer to the “truth” about his experience in Vietnam than any factual account could approach.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is published as non-fiction these days.  There is exactly a 0% chance that the events of that book happened just the way Thompson described them.  However the speech about the wave, you know, the one that starts with “San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…’ has got to be the truth, as he felt it.  It gives you more “truth” about that generation and that place than any doctoral thesis on the counter culture in the ‘60s could, in my humble opinion.

Swinging back around from my tangent, Journal of the Plague Year does contain plenty of facts and statistics (“But, Sydney, statistics hadn’t been invented in 1722.” I know, shut up.) about the Great Plague in London.  Defoe lists the number of people that died in each borough during each week of the plague.  He peppers in incidents from H.D.’s personal experiences.  Overall, he creates a very detailed if somewhat fictional account of the lives of the people of London during the “distemper.”  I know what you’re thinking: that sounds really boring.  You’re right.  This book was boring.  Fortunately for you I am going to tell you all the most exciting tidbits.

What I learned:

·         To ward off plague write this symbol on a piece of cloth and pin it to your clothes:












Congratulations!  You are now plague proof.

  • Each ward elected Examiners to go into houses and determine whether the inhabitants were infected.  If they refused to perform their duty, they were thrown in jail.  I would pick jail.
  • The Mayor of London issued an order to kill all the animals in the city.  Yep.  “That no Hogs, Dogs, or Cats, or tame Pigeons, or Conies, be suffered to be kept within any part of the City, or any Swine [. . .] and that the Dogs be killed by the Dog-killers appointed for that purpose.”  Can you imagine?
  • He also prohibited plays, bear-baitings (ugh), games and singing of ballads, to discourage people from assembling and infecting each other.

You might like this book if:

  • you are very morbid.
  • you like to read about dead bodies.
  • you have a particular passion for the plague.

You might not like this book if:

  • you are a human.


Final thoughts: The plague sucked.  Hooray for soap, epidemiology and microbiology!

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel DefoeImage

Notable for being:

  • a genre starter.
  • one of the first novels in English.
  • appallingly racist and colonial.
  • continually in print since it was first published in 1719.

Yeah, that’s right, I made it to 27 without reading Robinson Crusoe.  Generally, I’m not drawn to novels with no female characters.  Despite its fame, I didn’t know much about this book going in.  I didn’t know that Crusoe is marooned more than once and I was shocked by the boldly racist and colonial attitudes portrayed in the novel.  It’s as if Defoe is so certain of the superiority of British nobility that he thinks natives of other countries are just sitting around hoping that a glorious white nobleman will show up so they can serve him forever.  Who doesn’t dream of a life of servitude?

First the rudiments of the plot, Crusoe starts out as a headstrong youth, determined to go to sea despite the tearful pleas of his father who begs him not to forsake his easy middleclass setup in England.  Regardless, he sets sail on a ship that gets attacked and captured by a “Turkish rover of Sallee.”  Crusoe’s captors sell him into slavery.  He contrives to escape and takes a Moorish boy, Xury, with him as he can’t sail his escape vessel all by himself.  Xury is a charming companion who helps Crusoe remain safe and fed until a Portuguese ship picks them up.  Crusoe then sells Xury to the Portuguese captain!  He feels conflicted, “not that I was not willing to let the captain have him, but I was very loath to sell my poor boy’s liberty, who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own,” but the captain offers to “set him free in ten years, if he turned Christian.  Upon this, and Xury saying he was willing to go to him, I let the captain have him.”  Ugh.  I don’t feel that I even need to go into how horrible that is.

Crusoe ends up in Brasil, where he starts a plantation.  He has a nice thing going for him, but feels that seafaring itch again and, seeking cheap labor, sets off for Africa to capture some slaves.  That’s right folks, the ship that wrecked and marooned Robinson Crusoe was a slave ship.  I didn’t know that.  Seems like a significant detail that should get more attention, huh?  They certainly changed it for the Pierce Brosnan movie.   So, the slave ship wrecks and Crusoe is the only survivor. He lives on that island for 28 years.  No joke.

The meat of the narrative consists of detailed description of our leading man’s efforts to build and fortify his shelters; hunt, gather and eventually farm.  We also, of course, get frequent updates on his emotional state featuring plenty of fear, loneliness, paranoia, pride in his ability to provide for himself, newfound religious faith, acceptance, contentment and gratitude.  A bumpy ride that leads to some wise-sounding philosophical ruminations on the value of having everything you could want and no possibility of gaining anything further.  Crusoe decides it’s desire and reaching for more than you have or need that lead to evil.  Pause and ruminate on Capitalism if you wish.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Crusoe lives in solitude for many years before Friday arrives.  For the sake of those who haven’t read it, I won’t relate the most exciting event in the story.  I’ll just say that Crusoe saves Friday from very imminent danger and let Crusoe tell you the rest: “At length he came close to me, and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head.  This, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave forever.”  Come on, Friday, there are two people on this island, there is no need to give up the power struggle so quickly or so thoroughly.  Yes, Crusoe saved Friday’s life and has scary guns, but seriously, he did not need to do that.  I guess the idea of a white man and a “savage” being friends, companions and—God forbid—equals would never have occurred to Defoe.  However, it seems to me that companionship is exactly what Crusoe would be wanting at this moment.  Also, I would think that the complete subjugation of another person is only possible when you have the muscle to reinforce it, which comes not only through superior arms, but by having a social system in place that supports the subjugators.  I find it inconceivable for two entirely isolated people to live as master and slave.  However, the way Defoe writes it, Friday immediately begins laboring to ensure their mutual safety while Crusoe sits back and watches.  Ugh.

Defoe does try to make Friday out to be a lovable savage.  He is energetic, athletic and friendly.  Not to mention “the colour of his skin was not quite black, but very tawny, and yet not of an ugly yellow nauseous tawny, as the Brasilians and Virginians, and other natives of America are, but of a bright kind of dun olive colour, that had in it something very agreeable, though not very easy to describe.”  Apparently, the skin color of Native Americans makes Robinson Crusoe feel like he is going to barf.  Do you kind of wish he had died slowly of malaria?  He converts Friday to Christianity, but mentions that even though he had not the advantage of a Bible, he was way better at Christianity than any of Crusoe’s English buddies.   In other words, he was already a good person without Christianity while many Christians were not such compassionate people.  I have to admit, I skipped approximately three pages of Crusoe converting Friday, because the concept of converting the heathen makes my skin crawl.

Now I have gone on too long about Robinson Crusoe.  I have much more to say about Daniel Defoe and his style and contribution to literature, but I’ll leave that for the next post on Journal of the Plague Year.

You might like this book if:

  • you like survival stories.
  • you like to read about farming, hunting and making things.
  • you are interested in 18th century colonialism.

You might not like this book if:

  • you need your novels to have female characters.
  • you don’t want to think about 18th century colonialism.
  • you like stories to have social interactions and are easily bored by a character pondering his own situation.

Final thoughts: I think Crusoe’s emotional development as he reacts to his isolation on the island is the most compelling element of the story.  I can see how people might enjoy reading about his home improvement projects, basket weaving and making a grindstone for example.  I have no beef with Defoe’s writing style.  He can compose a compelling sentence.  However, if you are seeking entertainment, the book is too long and the plot points too far between.