XlX. The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandize – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

by richibi

from Sonnets from the Portuguese

XlX The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandize

The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandize;
I barter curl for curl upon that mart,
And from my poet’s forehead to my heart
Receive this lock which outweighs argosies, –
As purply black, as erst to Pindar’s eyes
The dim purpureal tresses gloomed athwart
The nine white Muse-brows. For this counters part,…
The bay crown’s shade, Beloved, I surmise,
Still lingers on thy curl, it is so black!
Thus, with a fillet of smooth-kissing breath,
I tie the shadows safe from gliding back,
And lay the gift where nothing hindereth;
Here on my heart, as on thy brow, to lack
No natural heat till mine grows cold in death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Elizabeth in the last poem has just given a
lock of her own hair to her “poet”, now
Robert returns his own tonsorial favour

this exchange, this particular instance of
“mechandiz[ing]”, would baffle merchants –
“counters”, she calls them, somewhat
derisively – would render deliberations
moot whereby a curl “outweighs” very
argosies”, flotillas – see Jason and the
Argonauts, their golden cargo, for an

Pindar is one of the nine lyric poets of Greek
antiquity, whose brows were touched by the
nine Greek muses, Clio, Thalia, Erato, Euterpe,
Polyhymnia, Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania,
Melpomene, may they forever inspire

the “bay crown” is the laurel her victor still
may wear to honour his celebrated literary

“purpureal” is another word for purple

Elizabeth‘s love is unquestionably erudite,
perhaps a little indeed too “purple” were it
not for the beauty, and piercing sincerity, of
her vaunted sentiment

as it is she overcomes her own arcane even
references to deliver staunch and poignant,
I think, relevance, enough to be moved and

long live Elizabeth