‘How Do I Love Thee?’ (Sonnet 43) by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning

 How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
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.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

13 thoughts on “‘How Do I Love Thee?’ (Sonnet 43) by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning

  1. Elizabeth Barrett’s love affair with the poet Robert Browning against
    the will of her father is well documented. The strength of her love is
    well evoked by the collection of sonnets she wrote entitled Sonnets
    from the Portuguese of which this is number 43. She had health problems from an early age and was deeply upset by the death of her
    brother, Edward, who was killed in a sailing accident. Because of these
    factors and the strictness of her father, she became very reclusive.
    She did, however, write poems, one of which praising a work by
    Robert Browning caught the latter’s attention and led to a correspondence between them. This, in turn, led to a strong and lasting
    love between them which had to remain secret at first because of her father’s opposition.

    The collection of sonnets was published in 1850, four years after the two lovers eloped together.

    Lines 9 to 10: it is appropriate to use some of the biographical details outlined above to explain these lines.

    This also apples to the “lost Saints” of line 12 who might be considered to be her mother and Edward, her brother.

  2. ‘Sonnet 43’ is a romantic poem, written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In the poem she is trying to describe the abstract feeling of love by measuring how much her love means to her. She also expresses all the different ways of loving someone and she tells us about her thoughts around her beloved. The tone of the poem is deep, in a loving way.

    The poet starts of by saying “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” by which she starts of with a rhetorical question, because there is no ‘reason’ for love. Rather than using “why” she enforces this meaning. But then she goes on saying that she will count the ways, which is a contradiction against her first line. In the rest of the poem she is explaining how much she loves. In the second line she says “I love thee to the depth & breath & height” using normal measurements for something that cannot be measured. This is a spatial metaphor. In this way she is trying to illustrate she loves every single piece of him. That there is nothing that she would change about him. Barrett Browning also never uses markers such as he, she, him or her. This is a sonnet and all sonnets have 14 lines where the two last usually have a broader meaning than the rest of the sonnet. In the final lines she has achieved this by bringing up the subject of the afterlife – “and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death”.

    In the sonnet, Barrett Browning repeats “I love thee” over and over again rather than using different words for love. This is to enforce the already existing knowledge about the strength of her love, and that what she feels is love, nothing more and nothing less. Also, by repeating it she is enforcing it on the readers that she loves him and there is nothing else to do about it, nothing that will make her change her mind. Also in the poem, no gender is implied. She just keeps saying “Thee” which has a certain formality over it. This is a very powerful key factor to the poem because she uses no gender markers such as him, her, she, he which makes it possible for the poem to be read out loud to any gender with any sexual preference. When she mentions her childhood’s faith she is implying the innocence of their relationship and how they can be naïve sometimes. But love needs naivety to survive. If you cannot believe there is no need for even trying.

    In the poem, Barrett Browning says “My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight”. This is an illustration of how much she trusts him. Even though she cannot see the ending of how this love will end, she trusts him and is willing to reach out in darkness, not knowing what’s coming for her. She also says “I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears of all my life!” This is implying that no matter what is going on in her life, whether something horrible happened or it’s just a normal day, she trusts him to stay by her side and that she will love every minute of it. Barrett Browning also mentions the sun and candle-light while talking about her love. This line is one of the only lines where she is using concrete imagery. She is using the image of light being constant and abstract saying that her love will forever go on but with a sense of mystery. The sun is also a very well known image for being strong, powerful, and good. Also, even when you can’t see the sun, you know it’s there and you know that it will always come back and brighten up your day. The sun is something human beings can’t live without and this is how Barrett Browning is illustrating her love. She can’t live without him. By using ‘sun’ she can also link it to ‘love’, seeing as for her, that is what her love is, strong and passionate. Before that Barrett Browning says “I love thee to the level of every day’s most quiet need”, implying that she needs him, even when there is nothing special happening. That she just needs him in her life. Without him it’s not the same. By the end of the poem, the poet says “and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” This is a very dramatic ending to such a romantic poem and might be seen as a hyperbole. What she’s saying is that if God gave her a choice between her own life and his, she would choose for him to live and that when she is dead, she can finally love him to the depth that he deserves, without anything standing in her way. That she could finally pay him back for all the things he did for her, by giving him her life, for eternity. Not only that, but she creates the image of their love, being infinite, that it will continue even after death tears them apart. Also, by mentioning Gods choice she increases the importance of their love.

    When the poet mentions “With my lost Saints” she is referring to those people in her life that she trusted and loved, which in the end, betrayed her. When she says “Saints” she is referring to the glorification she put on them, how much she trusted them increasing the power of their betrayal. By using this in a poem about love she makes the reader think that the person writing this is not naïve, that she is able to ask questions and not let everything pass her by. She is saying that people have betrayed her before, and that she has learned from her mistakes and that she is one hundred percent sure that he will not betray her, that he is ‘The one’. Earlier on, Barrett Browning says “I love thee purely” meaning that there is no distrust, no judgment in their love. When something is pure it means that his has no flaws. But by saying this she also raises a question by which love really can be pure or if this is just a similarity. That it is as close to pure as possible. Also, in the line “I love thee freely, as men strive for right” she is saying that she loves him, without expecting anything back. Also that she is willing to fight for him. The thing about this sonnet is that it is written in present. This enforces that it’s not a love that has been nor will be, it is something which is going on right now creating a sense of infinite flow to the poem.

    In the poem, Barrett Browning is using infrequent rhymes. An example of this is in the line “I love thee to the depth and breath and height” and the third line “My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight”, where ‘height’ and ‘sight’ rhymes. This creates a flow to the poem, giving it a sense of purity and also she might be suggesting a sense of completeness in love. While reading poems, most people find it calming to (unconsciously) see the rhymes. When they are analyzing the poem, people will see that she chose her words with care and put a lot of thought into it. This is a very important key factor to a poem. The word “love”, is repeated frequently in the sonnet, increasing the message. Also, the fact that she never uses any synonyms for love makes us realize that what she feels is love. That there is no other words that can be used to describe this, because love is such an abstract word and also is a very difficult word to describe.

    In the end, Barrett Browning achieved what she wanted. She brought out to the world the tremendous, abstract subject of love, and with great success. She warms up our hearts by showing her passion to her beloved, how openly and freely she trusts him. After reading this poem it’s hard to forget it. It also might leave a smile on your face. We are left with the enviable feeling of love, stuck in our hearts and the belief that love can last, if we fight for it. I think that with the use of her symbols, metaphors, verbs and adjectives she achieved the maximum amount of standard in this sonnet. Also, the fact that we have to use time to see the connections with the verbs and nouns, but not too much, is great. Another thing is that the message is clearly presented to the reader, making it easier to understand, still leaving the mystery for us to solve. It’s quite a magical sonnet, exploring the abstract power of love.

  3. The poem “Sonnet 43” by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning is about love. The entire poem is actually the poet trying to answer the first line of the poem, which is; “How do I love the?” The reader does not expect the poet to answer this question, because it is not only a rhetorical question, but also it seems almost impossible to answer this question. However, the poet does a brilliant job doing that by “Counting the ways” of how she loves “thee”. The main message of this poem is that the poet wants to describe her very powerful feeling of love for someone. This poem causes the reader to almost explore the poet’s passion for her feeling of love, due to the strong words used by the poet and by the repetitive statement “I love thee”.

    The poem starts by the poet asking a rhetorical question; “How do I love thee?”, with poet counting the ways how she loves “thee” instead of trying to explain how she loves “thee”. She does so because she cannot possible explain her love, so she starts with listing some, perhaps the most passionate ways of her love towards “thee”. The next few lines of the poem are the poet’s way of trying to express a way of how she feels. She states “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height”, which means she loves him in all possible directions. She includes this line in the poem to explain that there is not one direction in which she does not have the feeling of love. The poet then goes on by explaining her constant feeling of love by stating that she loves “thee by sun and candle-light”. This means her feeling of love for “thee” is a constant, never ending feeling. The line simply means that her love is like light, it is always there, and whether it is the sun providing the light at day or it is the candle providing the light at night.
    The poet then continues by almost going on by stating that her love for “thee” is pure, which means that there is nothing between her and her love. She also states that she loves with passion and with faith. Then the poem almost goes towards a negative direction. When the poet goes refers back into her childhood history, by stating that “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose”. By that line she refers that her ability to feel love was destroyed, due to the well – documented history of an abusive father. Some people with abusive parents lose the ability to love, even to trust someone. But the poet describes how glad she is that “thee” came into her life, because that almost gave her the chance to experience the beautiful feeling of love, which she never really felt by her parents. Coming near to the end of the poem, the poet states that “I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life!” This means that her love almost became necessary for her to stay alive, like “breathing”. She cannot survive without love, same as she cannot survive without breathing. The last line of the poem is in my opinion very mysterious. “I shall love the better after death.” This could possibly refer to her saying that there is no way that she can love “thee” as much as “thee” deserves it, so she states that she will still love “thee” after her life is over. She, again, does so because she wants to try to explain that there is no way that she can love “thee” as much as she wants to, so she states something which seems impossible, which is also her trying to express her feeling of love.

    The poet uses many different words to try to explain the significance of her love. The effects of the words alone sometimes help the reader understand more about the poem. For example, in line seven, the poet uses the words “freely” and “right”. Those are significant word choices, because people fight for rights, to be free, and relating to the poem, be free to love anyone they want. Also, it describes that no one is forced to love someone, you are free weather you want to love or not. People sometimes fight to receive someone’s love.

    The poet includes a significant amount of imagery in this poem. This poet paints many images in the readers mind when stating things such as: “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height.” This creates an image in the reader’s head of this endless love in all directions. The next thing the poet does is that she describes her constant feeling of love by comparing it to light from the sun, therefor at day, and candle-light, therefor at night. With this line, the reader can almost picture her constant love, by just pretty much thinking about the sun light and the candle light.

    The word class used in this poem is rather special and unique. First of all, there are no gender markings through out the whole sonnet, which is very unusual. However, this makes the poem unique, and you can feel relation to it whether you are male or female, and that is certainly one of the things that makes this poem enjoyable and almost kind of special.

    There is no doubt that there is a high rate of repetition in this poem. The words “I love thee” are used nine times in the poem. The repetitiveness of this makes the words almost flow in the readers head, even though the poem in a whole doesn’t include rhymes. Next, the poet makes a good use of including the difference of the sound of the words in the poem. The first few lines of the poem include deep, long vowel sounds such as the line: “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height”. This also includes a repetitive sound of the letter “e”, which adds and extra feeling to the depth of the line. However, this alternates as the poem goes on. Near the end of the poem, in the line “Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose”, the sounds of the words are clearly softer, not so deep anymore, and shorter.

    In conclusion, I like this poem as a whole. The poet uses a great choice of words, and it seems that there is a deep meaning behind every line. Also, in some very well created lines, you can almost feel the powerful feeling of love that the poet is trying to explain and describe. Also, I like this poem, because the main aim is not necessarily to explain her love, but to list the most passionate ways of how she loves. The poet also describes her never-ending, constant feeling of love by comparing it to a form of matter, which is quite interesting. Personally I believe that the poet was very successful in conveying her message. Her message is as simple as “I love you” , but she included amazing amounts of detail, in which she included expressing her thoughts, experiences and feeling, which make a very positive impact on the reader. All in all, it is a really enjoyable poem for the reader to read, because you can relate to it, whether male or female,

  4. Love is an emotion that most people will go through at least once in their lives. When asked about the true meaning of love, one might say that your love is someone you are willing to die for or that love in priceless. But no one can really tell you the true meaning of love, because everyone has different characters, and different love interests, and we would all have person points of views of love. If someone says that they can give you the true meaning of love, he or she would be lying, because all they can give you is their relative experience of love, and it therefore becomes an opinion. We find different ways of expressing our love, through songs, others though short stories or big novels. Poets like Elizabeth Barrett-Browning choose to pen a poem, to express their feelings. Her ability to write that many exceptional poems full of love should really show the extent of her love to her husband. The poem is written from the viewpoint of a deeply devoted wife, full of affection for her significant other. She is also very religious, as the poem contains many references to her religion of Christianity and god.

    Lines 1-12 are about love, and then it shifts to a more serious tone, where the poet speaks about love. In the lines 2-3, 5-6, 9-14, the poet uses enjambment, which helps the poem ‘run on’, so you flow into the next line and continue momentum instead of the usual rhythm a poem would have. The first line “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”, makes the readers think that it is a rhetorical question, but in fact, the whole poem is the answer to this question. As the reader reads on, he or she realizes that the poem actually gives the ways in which she loves her partner in life. The next line she says and explains that her love was “to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach” which shows that her love has no boundaries, and is only limited by how much she can achieve, or the extent of her reach.

    In the next line, she says that “she loves thee purely”, which explains that she only loves her husband, not anyone else. Also, she explains that she loves him as he “as they turn from praise” which means that her love is lasting, unlike the temporary good feeling achieved from someone praising you. In the next line, she says that “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose, With my lost saints”, suggesting that she has transformed the love she used to have for someone she admired, but was let down, and has since channeled it towards her new lover with the same intensity. She next writes that she “shall but love thee better after death”, which suggests that her love for her husband extends to after both of them have passed away. Her love then might be even stronger, because in the life we are living now, we are constantly bombarded by huge amounts of stress, worrying about things, making tough decisions and many other factors. With these annoyances, it is hard to find time or even space to have a love life. In the afterlife, we need not face the problems we encounter in our everyday lives, allowing us to be able to love someone with no limits, even ‘better after death”, focusing all your time and love to your soul mate.
    The poet’s choice of words is rather formal, yet passionate, and definitely romantic.

    At the start of the poem, she asks “how do I love thee”, which provides the feeling of a rhetorical question, when in fact, it is not, as the whole poem itself gives answers to the question. Also, in the poem she hyperbolizes when she explains her extent of her love to her lover. A good example would be when she writes, in line 2 and 3 that she “loves thee to the depth and breadth and height, my soul can reach”. She contrasts the two nouns, sun and candle-light in line 6, which are two different types of light sources which people use; one natural and used in the day, and one artificial and used at night. She could also have meant that it was a replacement for night and day, stating the fact that without light there is no life, and without life, there would not be love. Also, you would need light to see, to guide you through life, to find your lover. Thus, without light, you will never find the person you love, your one true love. She “loves thee purely, as men strive for Right”, which shows that her love’s will is as strong as the will of the people who are willing to stand up against for the better good, to fight for the what is right. Throughout the poem, she uses allusions to allows readers to interpret on their own the meaning of a sentence or phrase, such as her “old griefs”. That could allude to her sad childhood, or the hatred that she once had for someone, which was turned to love for her husband. In lines 2, 5, 7-9 and 11, she employs the use anaphora beginning and ending with the phrase, “l love thee”. The effect of parallel structure shows that the poem is more of a list of the how she feels towards her lover, rather than a telling a story of what their love is.

    Through the use of spatial metaphors, such as “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach”, the three dimensional space is conveyed, showing the extent of her reach, or the extent of her love. The effect achieved is that we understand the vastness of the love, but we cannot get a picture in his/her mind of exactly how much that is due to its limitlessness. She also uses symbolism; represents her love through different words, such as saying that her love is like her every “breath, smiles, tears”. This suggest that she loves him with every smile that crosses her face, which shows that her happiness is always an expression of loving him, and also the sad times, thus the “tears” and even unemotional moments of merely breathing in and out. The effect created by this is that these bodily reactions can be compared to her soul as she transforms the bodily realm to be with god, “if he chooses”. Also, we can understand that her love can range from the smiles of happiness to something like breathing, which we do every second of our lives. The repetition of the ‘th’ sounds can also suggest breathing. However, the lines 5-6 are the only lines which use concrete imagery – ‘sun’ and ‘light’ however it is still very much abstract, as is the whole poem. The effect achieved by this is that it would make the reader think about the poem, and then deducing what is meant by what she says.

    One of the most intriguing aspects of the poem is that the poet does not specify his or her gender, keeping in line with the vagueness of the rest of the poem. Because of the lack of gender markers, readers would have to interpret themselves who the poem is for, thus making the poem popular, as readers would find it easy to associate with their lives, and also because the rest of the poem is equally ambiguous, allowing readers to interpret the poem to fit their own lives, and thus associate with it. If she had used more specific terms, like changing the word “thee” to her husband’s name of Robert, readers might not have the same amount of interest, as their names would not be Robert; save for a few who actually are though. This is likewise for the gender of the author. If she had given any form of clue that allowed readers to determine her gender, then the male readers would not have the same amount of interest in the poem, as they would not be able to relate to it. In this way the poem is all-inclusive.

    The poem “How do I love thee” has a rhyme scheme of an Italian sonnet because of its rhyme scheme of ABBA, AABB, ACAC, DCD. It has an iambic pentameter rhythm with 10 syllables per line with five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables. She also uses internal rhyming, seen in “depth and breadth and height”. She also uses anaphora, using of “I love thee” eight times and another “I shall but love thee” in the last line”. Also the word “love” is repeated nine times, building up rhythm while emphasizing again that she really has deep feelings for her beloved. She also uses alliteration, examples would be ‘soul’ and sight on line 3, ‘love’ and ‘level’ in line 3 and ‘pure’ and ‘praise’ in line 8. The effect of the alliteration is that it makes the poem aids in memory because it is catchy, and makes the poem sound better, and helps emphasize about her deep emotions for her husband. It can also help aid readers to remember the poem better, for example, you would more likely remember a poem with the title “the menace of money” than “money is bad” .

    After reading the poem, I feel that the very mysteriousness of this poem and abstractness allows readers to interpret the poem differently, which could also mean that love itself is up to anyone individual to interpret, as love would be different to everyone, depending on their character and who they love. Unlike other poems, the poet does not directly talk about how she loves her husband, rather she uses vague terms like “most quiet need” which could have a few meanings, like for example the everyday necessities like water we need to survive. Finally, this poem is enjoyable to readers because its open-endedness allows for different readers to interpret the poem differently, to suit their own life, whether male or female.

  5. EBB studied Hebrew and New Testament Greek it is certain that she was familiar with this passage in the NT when she wrote her 43 sonnet. This sonnet is clearly patterned after this scripture. Her words and sentiment apparently come directly from this text.

    Romans 8:38-39
    King James Version (KJV)

    38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

    39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    43 Sonnet

    How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
    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.
    I love thee to the level of every day’s
    Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
    I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
    I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
    I love thee with the passion put to use
    In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
    I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
    With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
    Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
    I shall but love thee better after death.

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