Table of contents

1. Worka

What are we set on earth for? Say, to toil;
Nor seek to leave thy tending of the vines2,
For all the heat o’ the day, till it declines,
And Death’s mild curfew shall from work assoil 4.
God did anoint thee with his odorous oil,
To wrestle, not to reign;6. and He assigns
All thy tears over, like pure crystallines,7
For younger fellow-workers of the soil
To wear for amulets. So others shall
Take patience, labor, to their heart and hand,
From thy hand, and thy heart, and thy brave cheer,
And God's grace fructify through thee to all.
The least flower, with a brimming cup, may stand,
And share its dew-drop with another near.

2. Note on the text

This sonnet may be read as EBB's rejoinder to John Milton's “They also serve who only stand and wait” (the last line of his sonnet “When I consider how my light is spent”; on Milton's contributions to the sonnet genre, see the preceding headnote to this grouping of EBB's sonnets). The poem also echoes the many passages and contexts in which Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), speaking as a prophet to his times, urged the sacredness of work. How “the words ‘soul,’ ‘work,’ ‘duty,’ strike down upon the flashing anvils of the age, till the whole age vibrates,” EBB said of Carlyle's writings in her contributions to the collection of essays A New Spirit of the Age (1844), on which she collaborated with Richard Hengist Horne (BC 8:355).

3. Explanatory Notes

Untitled when first published in Graham's Magazine.

Alludes to New Testament parables of laborers in the vineyards (e.g., Matthew 20.1-16).

assoil absolve, pardon.

EBB contrasts the ancient practice of oiling a wrestler’s body before his match with that of anointing a king with oil at his coronation.

crystallines crystals (EBB's coinage).

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: July 16th, 2009
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