The Noblewoman Advices Towards Men to Win Their Love in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s The Lady’s Yes (New Criticism approach)

Posted on January 2, 2012


The Lady’s Yes was written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and first published at year 1844. I will use New Criticism approach to derive what the poem is going to say. I exclude all related references and relation to the culture of which the poem came. However, as Cleanth Brooks, the New Criticism supporter, have argued “Though poets do not necessarily go by the dictionary, consider the OED.”[1] I shall use dictionary as my primary tool to decode the true meaning of the poem. The proximity between the word and the poem’s world is the parameter to select the proper “dictionary meaning”. Although the effort of paraphrasing the poem only equipped with dictionary, I believe that supplying the ingenious speculation[2] the interpretation can go beyond the New Criticism limitation. I use Encarta Dictionary because it mentions the origin of every word in every entry. Meanwhile, the poem was published in 1844. Thus, the “dictionary meaning” I am looking for should be not later than 1844.

Firstly, I try to reconstruct the poem’s “world”. Apparently, the poem’s point of view is very significant to be discussed. From the title it clearly suggests that the poem’s voice is a well-mannered woman. As expected from a woman, her utterances are unstable. It is revealed in the first line and second line. Her utterances: “Yes!” and “No!” are considered paradoxical. Actually, this indicates many things, it probably not about woman’s instability. To know the mind state, I go further to the second stanza. To conclude, I believe the first stanza is about retelling her actions “last night” and “this morning”. The word “jest” in the second stanza is other keyword to be considered. Jest meant:

jest [jest]

noun (plural jests)

  1. playful joke: something done or said in a playful joking manner (literary)
  2. 2.       something joked about: an object of scorn or derision (archaic)

[13th century. Via Old French geste “romantic exploit” < Latin gestus < gerere “behave, perform”]

The two meanings here have the core meaning of “joke”. Interestingly, the second meaning has the same expressing word as the sixteenth line “scorn”. Because of this proximity fact, it is more appropriate to interpret “jest” as the second “dictionary meaning”. So, it is not about woman’s instability but rather about “the unwillingness of a woman to answer a man’s question”. Thus, the poem’s “world” is the woman’s thought after responding to the man’s question.

Secondly, the tone of the poem is to be considered next. Laurence Perrine in his journal “The Importance of Tone in the Interpretation of Literature” emphasizes the importance of tone in interpretation as the first step to determine the meaning[3]. In this poem, I already know that the speaker is a woman. What to know next is her attitude of expressing her feeling. From the poem’s form, her tone can be guessed from the italic words. Italic is used to give emphasis in text. In the poem’s context, it means that the woman gives emphasizes in those italic words. There are four parts in which the woman expresses her strong feeling. In the “Love me sounded like a jest,”, the words “sounded like” give clear idea of a hesitation. The italic, thus, shows the tone of hesitation. Whereas the italic words in the following line suggest a voice tone when we shout two choices to our interlocutor. It is like: “What do you think? Yes or No!”. The third italic word in “Scorn of me recoils on you!” is indicated as cursing sentence. The italic word “you!” describes as if she is pointing to the man whom she cursed, the man who scorned her. Via distinctive formatting like this italic, it can be assumed that the woman is upset. The last italic word in “And her Yes, once said to you,” indicates her firm belief. Her current state of mind is now clear; she is a polite dignified woman who is disturbed by a man’s attitude. It is presumably because the man wants her to be his spouse.

Although the state of mind is clearly defined, it is not known yet whether the man is the one to blame or not. The woman’s further response is also still vague. If so, by paraphrasing the poem using the dictionary I shall get the story based on the woman’s point of view.

The Polite Dignified Woman’s Acceptance

Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Stanza 1:

“[I] accept [it]!” I answer you last night;

“[I] refuse [it]!” this morning, Sir, I say!

Somebody’s real self, seen by way something is viewed,

Will not look unchanged by indefinite period or point in time.

Analysis of stanza 1:

The first stanza retell the woman’s unstable answers. The man asked her something important, revealed at the previous paragraph that the man wants the woman to be his spouse. The woman gives her reason why she changed her answer in line 3 and 4.

Stanza 2:

When the tabors played their highest standard,

The source of enlightenment [is located] in more respected position than, something funny or enjoyable [that is located] in lower grade–

Love me seemed like something joked about,

Appropriate for Acceptance or appropriate for Refusal!

Analysis of stanza 2:

Tabor is a small drum played with one hand while the other hand plays a pipe. Tabors were used especially in the Middle Ages[4]. The word first appearance was in the 13th century, derived from Old French word tabour. It looks like this word is used as a filler for explaining other important keywords. First and second line of this stanza explain about the essence of good manner which always lies in a higher respected position than bad manner. She reckons something funny or enjoyable as as a bad manner. I think the one she mentions here is not like comedy or entertainment but humiliating manner. The man proposed her in such an unconvincing way that she considered it as a joke. Because she considers it as a joke, she takes it lightly whether she wants to say yes or no at the moment.

Stanza 3:

Call me not genuine, or call me not affected by particular thing–

Pledge something, whatever that way something is viewed may direct light of something,

No man on your unpleasant facial expression shall realize something by seeing

Any intense sorrow for making or becoming different on mine (my choice).

Analysis of stanza 3:

The following stanza is the effect of taking the man’s proposal lightly. The woman’s final response is to refuse the man’s proposal so that the man’s feeling must be hurt. However, the woman tells him not to reveal his sorrow towards the other men.

Stanza 4:

Yet the shameful offense is on us both–

Suitable moment to dance is not to seek woman’s love–

The seeker of woman’s love immoral[-ity] makes changeable solemn pledge–

Object of contempt of [which is] me feel horror on you!

Analysis of stanza 4:

She believes that it is not only the man’s fault. She bears some regret in playing a joke by saying “Yet the sin is on us both–”. Nevertheless, she makes a justification which positions the man in a stronger “who-to-blame” person (line 2 and 3 of fourth stanza). At the last line in this stanza, she cursed the man that all of his actions (the consideration that should bear) are soon return to himself.

Stanza 5:

Find out [how] to earn love of somebody [that is] a polite dignified woman’s belief or trust

[by] having excellent moral character, as the something that can be possessed is very favorable;

[by] having or showing courage, as for life and death—

With a faithful seriousness

Analysis of stanza 5:

There is a change of the poem’s way of telling in this stanza. If Stanza 1 until 4 retells her story regarding the woman’s refusal to a man’s proposal, stanza 5 until 7 tells about the woman’s advice to men. It is about how to treat a lady and win her. It is indicated by the usage of the word “you” that is now refer to the reader, not the man anymore. Especially for stanza 5 and 6, the way of telling is also in form of procedure steps. The woman suggests that every man should earn woman’s trust in order to win her love. The trust can be earned by having excellent moral character and courage of life and death with a faithful seriousness.

Stanza 6:

Guide her from the cheerful theatrical stage,

Direct her to the skies with many stars shining,

Protect her, by your honest promises,

Clear from prelude to marriage excessive or insincere compliments.

Analysis of stanza 6:

This is the continuation of the previous stanza. It still tells about how to win a woman’s trust.

Stanza 7:

By your honesty she shall be genuine—

Always be genuine, as the wives in the far distant past –

And her Acceptance, once said to you,

Shall be Acceptance for from now until the end of time or the end of somebody’s life.

Analysis of stanza 7:

The last stanza is the conclusion of Stanza 1-4 and Stanza 5-6. For stanza 1-4, the last stanza informs hints that should be afforded by the man to make the woman accept his proposal. For stanza 5 and 6, the last stanza is to reveal the benefit of the woman’s advice. Thus, the word “you” here has double meaning; refers to (1)the man who proposed her to be her spouse and (2)everyman who reads her advice. The intersting thing is when she compares women’s genuineness to the wives in the far distant past. It gives a strong proposition that the present women in her “world” is not as easy to convince as the women in that far distant past.

By looking at the above elaborations, the poem at least has two layers of meaning. The first meaning is the story of a lady who refused a man’s proposal. The second meaning is the advices of a woman towards hopeless men about how to win their love. The notable notion when deriving the “dictionary meaning” is that the most proximate meaning derived from literal, dated, and/or archaic meanings. This, I believe, the poet’s effort to characterize the lady as a noblewoman.



Brooks, C. 1979. “The New Criticism.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 87, No. 4 (Fall, 1979),

pp. 592-607. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lanchashire, I. 2009. “RPO – Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Lady’s Yes”. Representative         Poetry Online. Toronto: Department of English, University of Toronto.

Perrine, L. 1963. The Importance of Tone in the Interpretation of Literature. College English,       Vol. 24, No. 5             (Feb., 1963), pp. 389-395. National Council of Teachers of English.   

Microsoft® Encarta® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


[1] Brooks, C. 1979. “The New Criticism.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 87, No. 4 (Fall, 1979), pp. 592-607.

The Johns Hopkins University Press.     ,        Page 602.

[2] Brooks, C. 1979. “The New Criticism.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 87, No. 4 (Fall, 1979), pp. 592-607.

The Johns Hopkins University Press.     ,        Page 598.

[3] Perrine, L. 1963. The Importance of Tone in the Interpretation of Literature. College English, Vol. 24, No. 5            (Feb., 1963), pp. 389-395. National Council of Teachers of English.     Page 389.

[4]               Microsoft® Encarta® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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