The poem “How Do I Love Thee?” from the Sonnets from the Portuguese XLIII is a Petrarchan sonnet of fourteen lines, consisting of an octave and a sestet. It was written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) in 1845 and was composed for her husband, the renowned Romantic poet, Robert Browning. At the time of writing, Barrett Browning’s life had been one of seclusion from the world, as she was the daughter of an overprotective, archetypal ‘Victorian Father’. And, although she was a published poet at the time of writing the sonnet, Barrett Browning had spent the majority of her early adult life as a recluse, forbidden by her father any moderate contact with the outside world. Following the death of her mother when she was 22, and the drowning of her brother in 1838 in Torquay, Devon during a visit to aid Barrett Browning’s ailing health, the poet became bed bound with poor health and a nervous disposition.
Her sickness in her mid twenties, which is considered to be anorexia, combined with a bronchial complaint, restricted her adult life and she had little contact with possible suitors other than the poet Robert Browning who, along with John Kenyon, a friend of the arts, visited her in her home. As Barrett Browning lived most of her life in the confines of her room, her poetry does not reflect, or usually reference, the outdoors as, say, Wordsworth’s poems do; but her poems are usually figurative, relating to the world outside as she saw it through reading literature – and she was very well read. This poem was written when she was forty years old and she writes with a certain innocence, mixed with a mature, womanly outlook.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning secretly married Robert Browning, who was six years her junior and the two set out for Italy to escape her domineering father. The poem “How Do I Love Thee?” is part of a sequence written by Barrett Browning during this period of her life and the poem is a declaration of love to her new husband. It was written soon after their elopement and remains one of the most famous love poems, containing in the opening the rhetoric question “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”. Barrett Browning goes on to declare her love in no less than eight ways in the poem.
The first way the poet shows her love is in the lines 2, 3 and 4: “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.” Barrett Browning declares her love to be unconditional. She loves with her all her soul, reaching out beyond “Being”, as far as her soul can reach, to both her creator and to her Love. This line contains a quotation from the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Ephesians, and as the poet was a devout reader of the bible, the reference reflects her knowledge and understanding of the scriptures. The length, breadth and height she mentions conveys the shape of a crucifix: as high as God’s love, as deep as Christ’s love and sacrifice and as long lasting as infinity. Her love, she is saying, is as deep, broad and long as her soul can reach and is as great as the length, breadth and height of God’s love.
Her love is as unconditional as, and is part of, the love Christ has for man. The reference to “Being” and “Grace” in line 3 relate to the ‘Great Chain of Being’ which links God with man via the angels right down to the animals, plants and the Earth itself. “Grace” is the ‘link’ within the chain, connecting God with all of his creation. As God’s love is infinite, Barrett Browning is declaring her love as the same, unconditionally reaching out to the length, breadth and height of Being and Grace. Her love reaches beyond her life, beyond Being and Grace, to the end of her life – to her salvation.
The second way she shows her love is in the lines 5 and 6: “I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and by candle-light”. Here, Barrett Browning is declaring her love as constant through time, both by day and by night. Her reference to sun and candle-light refers to her life withindoors. We can imagine Barrett Browning marking the passage of time by the movement of sunlight across her room, or by the warmth of candle-light at night and evening. It is by the consistence of the passing of time which she experienced each day that she declares her love to be as constant, as timeless and as unchanging as the “level of every day”. Barrett Browning instils a sense of peace and stillness in these lines, and through her choice of diction she conveys a comforting love, filled with quiet reverence and consideration.
The third way she shows her love is in line 7: “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;”
In this line, Barrett Browning is showing that she loves freely, without constraint, with her free and unrestrained will. Through the mention of men striving for Right, she is comparing her love as dedicated and filled with the same fervour as man’s endeavour for freedom. Being a Liberal, Barrett Browning had sympathies for the rights of man, the seeking of fraternity, equality and liberty shown during the French Revolution which inspired most of the Romantic poets. The choice of words also reflects her growing relationship with Robert Browning who was also a Liberal, and her words would have held as significant meaning to him as they had for her. Barrett Browning may also have seen her marriage to her husband as the key to her own freedom and liberty. Her life with him would have provided independence from her dominant, repressive and over bearing father.
The fourth way her love is declared is in line 8: “I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.” Barrett Browning is showing her love to be pure and without lust. She is herself virginal and chastely, and her love for Robert Browning is as pure as her love of God. By referencing “Praise”, Browning is comparing her love to be the same as religious worship, unsullied, untainted, innocent and virtuous. By this comparison, she is declaring her religious piety, but this line also reflects the innocence of Barrett Browning’s character. She is inexperienced in the act of love between man and woman, but she knows the passion of love for God. Therefore, this line shows her love for Robert Browning to be as pure and as praiseworthy as her love of God.
The fifth way she illustrates her love is through the lines 9 and 10: “I love thee with the passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.” As before, Barrett Browning is declaring her love to be as strong as the passion of faith and with the same innocence as childhood religious piety. Her “old griefs” may well reflect the loss of her mother and the death of her brothers, which affected her deeply. She shows her love to have the same passion as the grief she felt at their deaths – a sorrowing passion, but one of great strength. This is the same degree of passion she feels for Robert Browning, the same depth of emotion and feeling. She is aware of mortality and still feels the loss of her “old griefs” and she may fear the loss of her new love with Robert Browning, being conscious of the inevitability of death, so gives of herself completely to him.
As in the previous lines, in lines 11 and 12, Barrett Browning shows her love to be as strong as the love she felt for her “lost saints”- for her mother and brothers. Lines 11 and 12 are an extension of the thought she expresses in lines 9 and 10, but she expresses her loss as a child as being one of innocence, the childhood belief that she lost all with the death of her mother and siblings. With the words “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints” she is expressing that she had “seemed to lose”, but has now found love again with her love for her husband to be. What is more, she may have lost a part of herself, and certainly that innocent love that was marred by the death of her family members, but which she has re-found again. She may well feel whole once more and have also rediscovered her “childhood faith” by her depth of love for Robert Browning.
The line “I love thee with the breath, Smiles tears, of all my life!” shows that she loves with all of her emotions, all of her experience and all of her life. By these words she may be expressing her love by measuring it against her whole being, all the sorrow, joy and pain, all of the sickness and loss she has felt. She loves with all of herself, all that has gone before, all of her life balanced against the love she feels.
Finally, with the last line, which begins after the Caesura in line 13: “-and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” she shows she loves beyond life and into death. She will love eternally and “if God choose”, she will love him better after death – when life cannot alter her love, when her love resounds in eternal peace. This line is also reminiscent of the marriage vows taken by her before God.
Barrett Browning uses a lot of religious references in the diction she chooses to express her love. Among these are references to the “depth and breadth and height” as discussed previously, “soul”, “ends of Being” and “Grace”, “Praise”, “faith”, “lost saints” and “God”. Her poem is a declaration of her love and she likens her love of Robert Browning to her love of God and God’s love of man.
Her other choices of diction show the use of alliteration of the phoneme sound /l/. This is shown in her use of “Love”, Let”, “soul”, “feeling”, “ideal”, “level, “candle-light”, “freely”, “purely”, “old”, “childhood’s”, “lose”, “lost”, “Smiles”, “all”, “life” and “shall”. Her use of this alliteration conveys the sense of “love” declared within the poem. The /l/ phoneme sound is present in each line, not least in the word “Love”, and it is used repeatedly throughout the poem.
The poet also choices to use a great deal of assonance, especially of the phoneme sound /i:/, as in “thee” “feeling”, “ideal”, “freely”, “purely”, “griefs”, “Being”, “every” and “seemed”. As well as this, assonance can be found of the /aI/ phoneme sound. This can be found in her choice of “I”, “my”, “height”, “sight”, “ideal”, “quiet”, “by”, “”light”, “Right”, “childhood’s”, “Smiles” and “life”. Her decision to use the assonance of /aI/ and /i:/ reflect the words “I” and “thee” used throughout the poem and reiterates that the poem is about the depth of enduring love felt by the poet (I) for Robert Browning (thee).
The sound of the poem is measured, rhythmic and quiet and the poet’s use of alliteration, assonance and sibilance give a sense of a hushed, calm tone. Her choice of diction, enjambment and the chosen rhythm of iambic pentameter gives a precise and unhurried feel to the sound of the poem. The reader senses the poet’s passion and enduring love in a gentle way and is left with a feeling that the poets life spent within doors, quietly considering her love of Browning, is reflected in the poem – particularly with the line “I love thee to the level of every day’s Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light”.
Other poetic techniques used to convey the ever lasting and deep love displayed in the poem is the use of enjambment in lines 2 and 3, 5 and 6, 9 and 10, and in lines 11 and 12. Her use of enjambment conveys the freedom, continuance and endurance of her love and allows the poem to flow freely. The poet also uses parallelism in the lines 7 and 8: “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right; I love thee purely as they turn from Praise.” By repeating similar syntax in these lines, she emphasises that her love is both free and pure; but these lines also represent the same fervour of dedication to the rights of man that both Barrett Browning and her new husband would have felt. As Liberals and Romantic poets, both Robert Browning and Barrett Browning would have felt the same passion for liberty, fraternity and equality, and the lines 7 and 8 reflect both the poets and Robert Browning’s opinions, maintaining a familiarity of belief between the lovers.
Hyperbole is used by Barrett Browning to express the extremes of her love and is shown clearly in lines 2, 12 and 13. The lines are: “I love thee with the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach” and “I love thee with the breath smiles, tears of all my life”. By using hyperbole to exaggerate and emphasise the boundless and limitless extremities of her love she is conveying her love to be eternal, without restraint and endless. The poet also uses tripling in these lines which may convey her sense of the divine within the trinity of God as well as making an emphasis on the depth of her love.
The shape of the poem can be separated into an octave and a sestet, where, in line 9, the “volta”, shows a change in the content of the poem. In the octave, Barrett Browning is conveying her love to be in the present, using terms to declare her love in the now. However, the volta shows a change in tense and within the sestet the poet is referring her love to her past. Here, she is comparing her love to the “old griefs” and her “childhood’s faith”, and that she loves “with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints”. By using the present and past tenses in the octave and sestet she is declaring her love to be eternal, limitless and without the constraints of time. She refers to her past and present, and in the final line, to her future. The last line “I shall but love thee better after death” refers to her love enduring after death, into her own future and beyond. With there not being a gap between the octave and sestet, and the poem reading as a whole of fourteen lines, the poet is conveying her love to be entire, complete, and unbreakable and given wholly.
The poem is rich with alliteration and imagery and conveys her love to be both deep and eternal. The poem is a declaration of her love for Robert Browning, and with various religious connotations, likens her love to that of her love for God, God’s love for man and her love for Robert Browning as being one of the same. The poem can be read as a vow to Browning, made before God, showing her everlasting and enduring love for him; and the promise found within the poem is encircled by the love of God. Barrett Browning conveys deep and eternal love through her choice of diction by declaring her love in eight ways; by her reference to her present, past and future and showing her love to be constant throughout her life; her use of alliteration, representing “love”, and assonance, representing “I” and “thee”; her emphasis of meaning through her use of parallelism and the sense of enduring, timeless love through her use of enjambment and her soft, quiet use of the tone and sound of the poem. The reader is left with a lasting impression of the deep and enduring love Barrett Browning conveys in the poem, and the poem remains on of the most famous love poems in literature.