This is a poem that Follows the Rules. It's a sonnet – a fourteen-line rhymed lyric poem written in iambic pentameter. Whoa, sorry, we slipped into literary techno-babble there for a moment. But before you even know what all that means, you can notice that this poem is highly structured – the number of lines, the number of syllables in each line, and the rhyme scheme are all prescribed by the literary tradition for sonnets. That's one reason this poem feels very conventional, maybe even a little inhibited; it's playing by all the rules that it can find. OK, now that we've explained that let's take this one feature at a time:
Fourteen lines: Every sonnet has fourteen lines. In fact, if you read a poem that's fourteen lines, the odds are that it's a sonnet. This is a fact that English teachers love to repeat, so it's a good one to know.
Rhymed: There are several different traditional rhyme schemes for sonnets. The rhyme scheme of this sonnet – are you ready? – is ABBA ABBA CDC DCD. Yes, we know, we're in techno-babble again. What you should know about this rhyme scheme is that it's not a traditional English sonnet pattern like the sonnets that Shakespeare wrote, most of which have more rhymes (they get up to "G" instead of "D" in the rhyme scheme – seven rhyming words instead of just four). Instead of following Shakespeare or any of the other great English sonneteers, Barrett Browning chose to model her sonnet on the Italian or Petrarchan pattern.
Here's the point: in a sonnet by Shakespeare, there are four groups of rhyming lines, followed by a couplet. The couplet naturally becomes an exciting "turn" or "twist" in the sonnet, or sometimes a little summary. In contract, in sonnets by the Italian poet Petrarch, the rhyming lines divide into a group of eight followed by a group of six – so instead of having a thought that develops for twelve lines and then a catchy rhymed couplet, you get one idea for about half of the poem, followed by a twist (called a "volta") and then another idea for the next six lines.
So, choosing to write an Italian-style sonnet means a few things: 1) there are fewer rhyming words, so the same sounds are repeated more often, giving the poem a very heavy, obvious rhythm; 2) the twist in the writing comes about halfway through instead of right before the end; 3) and there's an exotic, Romantic sense of "foreignness" for an English poet in borrowing this form from Italy. That's a lot of meaning for a few rhyming words!
Lyric: Have you ever wondered what the word "sonnet" means? OK, we know you haven't, but think about it for a moment now. "Sonnet" is actually Italian for "little song," which is a pretty strong hint that sonnets usually count as lyric poetry. Get it? Song? Lyric? Even if you didn't know the origin of the word "sonnet," you probably noticed that this poem is 1) really short and 2) doesn't have true characters in the way that a play would. In fact, it's too short to be an epic and too abstract to be dramatic – definitely a lyric poem.
Iambic Pentameter: For poems written in English, the meter – the pattern and rhythm of the language – is always described using two words. The first word (here it's "iambic") tells you what kind of "foot," or small unit of rhythm, is the main one in the poem. The second word (here it's "pentameter") tells you how many of those feet are put together to make one line. An "iamb" is a two-beat foot that goes "da-DUM" – one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Because this is "pentameter," there are five iambs per line. So each line goes "da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM" – "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."
There are two things to know about iambic pentameter besides how it works. First, it's a very common meter in English poetry, because it's pretty similar to the natural rhythm of speech. All English sonnets (at least the traditional ones) are written in iambic pentameter. Second, any good poet doesn't follow metrical rules strictly – there will always be interesting exceptions here and there, so don't force the poem to fit the meter when you read it. In fact, if you find an exception, that might mean there's something interesting or important going on with that line.