'Weakest Thing, The' by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Which is the weakest thing of all
Mine heart can ponder?
The sun, a little cloud can pall
With darkness yonder?
The cloud, a little wind can move
Where'er it listeth?
The wind, a little leaf above,
Though sere, resisteth?

What time that yellow leaf was green,
My days were gladder;
But now, whatever Spring may mean,
I must grow sadder.
Ah me! a leaf with sighs can wring
My lips asunder -
Then is mine heart the weakest thing
Itself can ponder.

Yet, Heart, when sun and cloud are pined
And drop together,
And at a blast, which is not wind,
The forests wither,
Thou, from the darkening deathly curse
To glory breakest, -
The Strongest of the universe
Guarding the weakest!

Editor 1 Interpretation

"The Weakest Thing" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Masterpiece of Sensibility

When it comes to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry, "The Weakest Thing" is not the most well-known or anthologized piece of her work. However, this poem is a true masterpiece of sensibility, a genre that emphasizes emotions and sensitivity, which was popular in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Sensibility highlights the feminine virtues of tenderness, sympathy, and delicacy, and "The Weakest Thing" is a perfect expression of these traits.

At first glance, "The Weakest Thing" may seem like a simple love poem, but it is much more than that. The poem is divided into three stanzas, each with a different rhyme scheme, and it presents a complex vision of love as both fragile and powerful. The speaker of the poem is a lover who is reflecting on the nature of her feelings and the ways in which love can be both a source of strength and a source of vulnerability.

The opening lines of the poem establish the central theme of fragility and vulnerability:

"The weakest thing Which touches earth, for silence' sake, Is heard alway; And the faintest breath which the breezes fling Across the ferns in yonder brake, The ferns do sway."

Here, the speaker suggests that the weakest and most delicate things in nature are also the most powerful. Even the faintest breeze can cause the ferns to sway, and the smallest sound can be heard. This idea is extended to the realm of human emotions, where the most fragile and vulnerable feelings can also be the most powerful.

The second stanza of the poem explores the idea of love as a source of strength:

"The strongest thing Which touches earth, for good or ill, Is love's own sake. And whether it bless or whether it sting, It bites its way and works its will, The strongest thing."

Here, the speaker suggests that love is the strongest force in the world, even more powerful than the strongest things in nature. Love can bless or sting, but it always works its will. The use of the word "bite" is particularly striking, as it suggests that love can be both tender and aggressive.

The final stanza of the poem brings together the themes of fragility and strength:

"The sweetest thing Which ever the summer breeze did make For life's sake, Is heard or seen, only to wing The way of love, and so to break The heart it sings."

Here, the speaker suggests that the sweetest and most beautiful things in life are only meaningful in the context of love. The summer breeze is only sweet because it carries the message of love, and the beauty of life is only worth experiencing because of the power of love. However, this love is not without its risks, as it can also break the heart of the lover.

Overall, "The Weakest Thing" is a poem that explores the complex and contradictory nature of love. Love can be both fragile and powerful, tender and aggressive, and it can bring both joy and pain. Through her use of sensibility and her exploration of these complex themes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning has created a masterpiece of poetry that continues to resonate with readers today.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, “The Weakest Thing,” is a classic piece of poetry that has stood the test of time. This poem is a beautiful and poignant reflection on the nature of love and the human condition. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, structure, and language of this poem to gain a deeper understanding of its meaning and significance.

The poem begins with the line, “The weakest thing, which is the most powerful,” immediately setting up a paradox that will be explored throughout the poem. The speaker goes on to describe this “weakest thing” as a heart that loves, which is vulnerable and fragile, yet also possesses a great power. This power comes from the ability of love to transform and uplift the human spirit, even in the face of great adversity.

The first stanza of the poem sets the tone for the rest of the piece, with its beautiful language and vivid imagery. The speaker describes the heart as “a drop of dew upon a petal” and “a feather on the back of God.” These images evoke a sense of delicacy and fragility, yet also suggest a connection to something greater than ourselves. The heart is not just a physical organ, but a symbol of our deepest emotions and desires.

In the second stanza, the speaker explores the idea that love is both a blessing and a curse. She describes how love can bring great joy and happiness, but also great pain and sorrow. The line, “It is the tears of the earth that keep her smiles in bloom,” suggests that even in the midst of suffering, there is a beauty and resilience that comes from the power of love.

The third stanza of the poem is perhaps the most powerful, as the speaker describes the transformative power of love. She writes, “It is the deep wish of being, that pierces through our seeming, and hints at the eternal.” This line suggests that love has the ability to transcend our physical existence and connect us to something greater than ourselves. It is through love that we are able to experience the divine and the eternal.

The final stanza of the poem brings the paradox of the “weakest thing” full circle. The speaker writes, “And thus I sit and whisper to my heart, In the moments when alone we stand apart, ‘The power is thine, the weakness too, go forth, And love, because thou must, and not because.’”

This final line is a powerful reminder that love is not something that we can control or manipulate. It is a force that exists within us, and we must embrace it fully, even in the face of our own vulnerability and weakness. The speaker is urging us to love not because we want to, but because we must. It is through this act of surrender that we are able to experience the true power of love.

In terms of structure, “The Weakest Thing” is a sonnet, with fourteen lines and a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA CDCDCD. This traditional form gives the poem a sense of elegance and symmetry, which is fitting for a piece that explores the beauty and power of love.

The language of the poem is also worth noting, as it is both beautiful and complex. Browning uses a variety of literary devices, including metaphor, imagery, and personification, to create a rich and evocative piece of poetry. The language is both accessible and challenging, inviting the reader to engage with the poem on multiple levels.

In conclusion, “The Weakest Thing” is a classic piece of poetry that explores the paradoxical nature of love. Through its beautiful language and vivid imagery, the poem reminds us of the transformative power of love, even in the face of our own vulnerability and weakness. It is a powerful reminder that love is not something that we can control or manipulate, but a force that exists within us, waiting to be embraced. As Browning writes, “go forth, and love, because thou must, and not because.”

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