Wednesday, May 17, 2017


After years of reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry, what I find most astonishing about her is her intellectual brilliance.  In a time when women were neither allowed to attend university, nor encouraged to read classical literature, she was extraordinarily well-read, even by modern standards. She wrote her first poem at age four or six.  By the time she was aged ten, she'd read widely in world history, Shakespeare, Homer, and Milton.

In addition, she convinced her father to allow her to 'audit' her brother's sessions with his tutor, under whose tutelage she read classical works in Latin, French, Greek, and Italian.

In 1820, at age fourteen, she published a book-length poem, The Battle of Marathon (which she had completed two years earlier) and established herself as a literary prodigy to the London literatti.  She went on to publish several volumes of poems: An Essay on Mind (1826), a translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound (1833), The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), Casa Guidi Windows: A Poem (1851) and Aurora Leigh (1857), her magnum opus, to name a few.  Most were well-received by the critics of her day.  She was famous, celebrated in England, and had achieved fame on her own merit.

For much of her childhood (and later, as an adult), Elizabeth was delicate and sickly, spending most of her days seated in the Barrett parlor or in her room.  She received guests—family and friends—in this manner.  Occasionally, she took walks in the family estate's white rose garden or travelled to London (which had air pollution that exacerbated her condition).  A wealthy owner of Caribbean plantations, her father, Edward Moulton Barrett, was a loving tyrant with antiquated ideas regarding his mixed-race ancestry.*  The family secret was that not only did he own African slaves but was descended from one.  As a result, he forbad all his 11 children from marrying.

What saved Elizabeth, in my opinion, was her love of literature and books, her determination to broaden her intellect.  A neighbor and scholar, Hugh Stuart Boyd, tutored and guided her studies. Secondly, through an inheritance from her mother and aunt, she was financially independent (wealthy by the time's standards).  Thirdly, as assessed by Dr. Peter Dally in his book, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A
Psychological Portrait, she was mentally tough, with an admirable strength of character.

In 1845, a less well-known poet named Robert Browning wrote her what is, essentially, a fan letter: "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett. . . .  and I love you too."  She had read and liked his poetry.  A meeting was arranged at her home.  During the next twenty months, they continued to meet, while Elizabeth secretly composed the forty-four sonnets that chronicle their love story.  Writing them must have been emotionally cathartic for her.  She declared her love for Robert to herself, not even dreaming of a life together.

But, at 32, Robert was handsome, bold, impetuous.  He persuaded her of his love.  A plan was devised with help from her siblings.  Robert and Elizabeth wed, then fled on September 12, 1846 to Italy.  We know this because it is also the date of their last letter (forming a total of 570 letters) before their elopement.

In Italy, under a warm Tuscan sun, Elizabeth blossomed.  Her health and physical strength improved, and she was happy.  She wrote a tremendous number of letters to friends and family. The couple travelled throughout Europe.  In 1849, she gave birth to their only child, a son named Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning.

When Robert, now a father, discovered the sonnets, he marveled at their beauty and craftsmanship.  He urged Elizabeth to publish the poems.  She, however, was reticent of sharing what she perceived as poetic musings to herself—a sort of diary in verse—at a time when, as she says in one sonnet, she had been glad to just breathe his air.

So in order to obscure her authorship and give themselves a measure of privacy, they concocted the story that Elizabeth had translated the love sonnets of an obscure Portuguese poet.  Hence, the book’s title, Sonnets from the Portuguese.  (According to some sources, the title came from his nickname for her—“my little Portuguese”—due to her olive-toned/light tan complexion, of which Elizabeth was self-conscious.)

In 1850, Sonnets from the Portuguese was published and overlooked by most critics. Then, after eleven additional years living out a happy existence in Italy, Elizabeth died on June 29, 1861, as Robert held her.

I've re-read these poems after many years and, for the most part, they still have their lyrical beauty.  In one sonnet, Elizabeth ponders what her life will be like if she gives up everything to be with him.  In another sonnet, she chronicles their first passionate kiss.  In yet another, he brings her flowers.  My two favorites are sonnets 22 and 43.  The classic lines, "How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways. . . ."—most people in the US will recognize from high-school English class.

The remaining sonnets are technically well-crafted, though some are without the lyricism of the two sonnets mentioned.

I admit that today I find several of the sonnets heavy-handed, very Victorian.  But we must acknowledge that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was of the Victorian era.  Even so, I admire her forward thinking.  By modern standards, she was 'politically correct' on most social justice issues of her day: she championed women's equal rights, the 1833 Emancipation Act, which abolished slavery in England, and held strong opinions on French and Italian politics.  And these issues are reflected in her poetry.

Overall, I was thrilled to re-read these poems.  I love reading and re-reading sonnets 22 and 43 with their lyrical turn of phrase, as much as I did as a teen:

Sonnet 22

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curved point,--what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented?  Think!  In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence.  Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovѐd,--where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.


Yolanda A.  Reid is the author of two novels and a debut poetry collection,
Sonnets to the Japim Bird.


To read Sonnets from the Portuguese, visit


Friday, April 28, 2017


Incredibly, the first sonnet in English was written by a woman in 1560.  Her name was Anne Locke (c. 1530-1590).  I'd never heard of her until two or three weeks ago, while researching sonnets. All this time, I had believed that William Shakespeare, the Bard, had invented the English sonnet. 

According to Interesting Literature, the Bard wrote his sonnets thirty years after Anne Locke's version.  Thirty years!  Basically, she is known to English scholars and unknown to the rest of us.  Perhaps the reason for her obscurity is that, in her time, she risked imprisonment or death by writing poetry.  After that, she may have been bypassed because she was a woman.  In any case, today let us give her the due recognition.  Read about her life at

As for her sonnets, they make for terse reading--of interest to very few people today besides literary scholars because the language is in Elizabethan English (complete with spelling):

     And then not daring with presuming eye
Once to beholde the angry heauens face,
From troubled sprite I send confused crye,
To craue the crummes of all sufficing grace.
With foltring knee I fallyng to the ground,
Bendyng my yelding handes to heauens throne,
Poure forth my piteous plaint w[ith] woefull sound,
With smoking sighes, & oft repeted grone,
Before the Lord, the Lord, whom synner I,
I cursed wretch, I haue offended so,
That dredyng, in his wrekefull wrath to dye,
And damned downe to depth of hell to go,
Thus tost with panges and passions of despeir,
Thus craue I mercy with repentant chere.

That said, you can read all of Anne Locke's 26 sonnets at .

Lastly, for a really interesting list of women poets who wrote sonnets in English over several centuries, visit

Number one on the list is, of course, Anne Locke.

--Yolanda A.  Reid


Yolanda A. Reid is the author of two novels and a debut poetry collection, entitled Sonnets to the Japim Bird.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Described as a "sonnet novella" by its publisher, More Sonnets from the Portuguese is the love story of a middle-aged woman and her married ex-lover from college. In the very first sonnet, entitled "I am a Sensible Woman," the protagonist sums herself up perfectly:

I--Zelia Nunes--sensibly married
only once. Forty-five, no longer young.
Husband dead, four children, mortgaged, harried,
Holy obligations met, even sung.

The title is from 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's classic, Sonnets from the Portuguese (which I've read and loved, for many years). This, too, is a beautiful sonnet sequence, adeptly written. In More Sonnets from the Portuguese, author Janet Eldred  adroitly uses a centuries-old poetic form

and brings it into the 21st century. She addresses modern-day issues such as infidelity, religious guilt, reproductive rights, the environment, aging, technology.

Zelia also references Facebook and Twitter, which makes sense because the bulk of the affair is conducted via e-mail. In "After Years," Zelia says, "Your e-mail before me, my body sings/the reply, One doesn't forget such things."

In another sonnet, she says, "I am officially a Kindle/girl...You pull me to you. You tempt me to stray--/Yes, good Lord help me, I like you that way." In yet another sonnet, she states, "You are the love of my life."                            

The poems feature beautiful imagery that is rich, sensual, complex. Once Zelia describes the California landscape as covered with "almond trees that blossomed like moonlight,/perfumed crops picked by bodies until broken." Her family ancestry is Azorean (from islands off the coast of Portugal). As depicted, the details feel intimate, fully developed.

I preferred the first half of this sequence, perhaps because in those sonnets the love was new and unexpected. In the second half, Zelia's mood changes from moment to moment, veering from excited and hopeful to despondent, all dependent on the vicissitudes of the relationship (after all, he has a wife!). Also, she becomes more philosophical as she grapples with her guilt and religion.

That said, I liked and enjoyed reading all the poems.

In her acknowledgments, Professor Eldred states that More Sonnets from the Portuguese began as a work of fiction, but that in poetry she found she could better tell Zelia's story. By doing so, she breaks new literary ground. Hence, the term "sonnet novella."

At this point, I must mention the stunningly beautiful cover art: a painting of a cobalt-blue peahen on a window sill. This watercolor, it turns out, is by the author herself.

Beautiful poems and beautiful art. Read these poems in honor of National Poetry Month or just because it's spring!  

--Yolanda A.  Reid


Yolanda A.  Reid is the author of two novels and a debut poetry collection, entitled Sonnets to the Japim Bird.  


Tuesday, January 24, 2017


As Chinese New Year approached, I began to reflect on the books I read this past year.  I had immersed myself in Chinese culture and language, which I've been interested in for most of my life.  So I thought I'd share three of the many books I read.  Each book is top-notch, beautifully written, evocative, and picturesque.  Each is a memoir that depicts a woman triumphant, at times despite circumstances of misogyny so blatant and palpable as to be shocking.  I encourage readers of this blog to sample one or two of these books, like salty, sweet, or savory dumplings in this, the Year of the Rooster.  Nian nian you yü!

1.  Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg-Kason

A true love story set in China, Good Chinese Wife depicts the author as an American graduate student at Hong Kong University who meets and falls in love with her Chinese classmate.  Curious about Chinese dating rituals, I found the book compelling, well-written, and completely absorbing as it details the rites of love, courtship and marriage in China as experienced by the author.  At one point, Cai, Ms. Blumberg-Kason's future husband, explains that Chinese couples only date if they intend to marry.  Once Cai and young Susan are married, however, their cultural differences prove insurmountable.  Although I knew the outcome, I wished for a happier ending. 

2. Leaving Mother Lake by Namu Erche Yang and Christine Matthieu

This is a beautiful and poignant memoir (co-authored with Christine Matthieu, an anthropologist).  I'd never heard of the Moso people and their matrilineal culture--with unusual customs and disbelief 
in marriage.  So I thought this was a book I could not miss out on.  It depicts the author's childhood and adolescence in a primitive environment that favors women.  Ms.  Yang reveals the fascinating
details of her youth, steeped in the beauty of the Himalayan mountains and Lugo Lake, her original homeland at the China-Tibet border.  The book culminates in her running away from love (though I wonder what happened to Geko, the young man she rejected) and her village, ultimately to Beijing.  It is beautiful, eloquent, and rare.

3. Journey Across The Four Seas: A Chinese Woman's Search for Home by  Veronica Li

As a young girl, Flora Li asked her mother when she was going to school.  Her mother said, "You're a girl.  Girls don't go to school."  That might have sealed her fate, except that she was determined to better herself and her circumstances.  A memoir of Flora Li's life as told to her youngest daughter, Veronica Li, Journey Across The Four Seas depicts Flora as she struggles to get an education and attend college in China.  Eventually, she gets accepted into a college program, graduates and works at various companies  with tenacity and diligence.  What I liked most was that she triumphed over many personal obstacles--from fending off her husband's girlfriend to raising her five children.  Flora Li is a woman of valor.   In addition, the book captures the tone and events of the turbulent times: the Japanese invasion of Nanking, British colonialism, World War II, with important historical persons such as Chiang Kai-shek.  I loved this memoir!

--Yolanda A.  Reid