How do I Love Thee as a Feminist Poem
The penultimate and most famous sonnet of the sequence Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), How do I Love Thee celebrates the joy and confidence that the speaker has achieved in this last section of sonnets. It is memorable, not because of the sentimentality with which the sonnet has been imbued over the last century, but because it culminates all that has gone before. The woman who speaks these lines is calmly fearless in stating her love; there is no shrinking from self-expression, no self-deprecation, no prostration before the male lover. The speaker is unashamedly the focus of the sonnet: she is the subject voice; she is the lover. Within this love relationship, the woman has moved from silent object to sharing the speaking voice of the subject poet.
Dorothy Marmin summerises the essence of the sonnet as the culmination of themes that have run through the sequence, such as definition of space or the relations of new love to the past. She notes that the speaker is at long last answering the male lover’s question by speaking her love Marmin concludes ‘the repetitive structure’ (six lines begin, ‘I love thee,’ and the phrase appears three more times as well) forms a striking contrast to the other sonnets, while thematically it echoes with triumphant elaboration the ‘silver iterance’ of ‘I love thee’ that she had asked of him earlier.
“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.”
The speaker has claimed the conventional mode of the courtly lover, listing the ways in which she loves her partner. The focus is crucial, though, and too often overlooked. This is not a list of male lover’s gifts and graces to her she is the active, initiating giver. She is not the simple one-dimensional figure, of much male literature; rather she must count the ways by which she loves. The whole sonnet enumerates the myriad levels at which the complex woman feels and acts.
The second line indicates her appreciation of the way the patriarchal structure has been disrupted in their relationship. The line uses the description that Paul uses to convey the vastness of Christ’s eve: “that you…may have power to comprehend…what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19).
Instead of the usual portrayal of the male lover as Christ, the speaker uses the description as a metaphor for herself. She now has the love to bestow in virtually limit less abundance. Moreover, the second phrase of the biblical text is also echoed in the sonnet in lines 3-4. The speaker loves as far as her soul will go, and this extent far surpasses that of conventional patriarchal love sight and knowledge. The Irigarayan motif of the gaze, used within patriarchy to fix and appropriate the woman object, is here overturned; this woman’s love goes beyond sight, instead feeling to the limits of existence. That “feeling” is both emotional and tactile, touching instead of watching.
As stephenson writes:
“The male lyric typically relies upon distance to impose a space between lover and unattainable beloved which is never actually traversed; the lover views his beloved across this space, and frustrated desire is expressed primarily with the use of the visual metaphor. A number of recent critics have suggested that women’s love poetry, in contrast, depends more upon the tactual that the visual.”
The sonnet makes gestures towards transcendent realms. The woman feels out of sight “for the ends of Being and ideal Grace”; presumably this denotes the end of human existence and the entrance into a pseudo-Platonic ideal realm which is also a heaven of Christian grace. But here the woman only reaches she does not attain. The impossibility – and silence of that earlier fantasy love of transcendence is suggested here as an ideal, but the woman does not remove herself from the human relationship that she has now. That relationship is clearly rooted in the mortal present.
“I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise”.
Her love is also as basic as the needs of daily life, specifically the most basic human need for light that dispels darkness.
The rather sanctimonious sentiments of lines 7 and 8 are nevertheless important in claiming the high moral ground for their love. In them, the speaker shows the fundamentally pure basis to their relationship. This has been a continuing theme in the sonnets, the need to show that this relationship that disrupts society’s conventions is both valid and morally right.
“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!”
The deepest aspect of the woman’s love is her past. And so she recalls it here, noting that the ‘passion’ that she used to expend upon grief is now redirected. ‘Old griefs’ are the sorrows that have been well-aired throughout the sonnets- both societal and familial. Hand-in-hand with these, however, must go the breaking of childhood ‘faith’: the sureness and expectations of youth that have been crushed by societal pressures and structures. The reference to ‘lost saints’ suggests her dead family loved ones, now translated into sainthood in heaven.
The wider significance of the lines focuses on the process of crushing disillusionment and suppression that turns the child of abilities and voice into the silent Victorian woman. This was very real process for Elizabeth Barrett Browning who saw her domestic walls closing in around her as she reached womanhood.
But with this new love relationship comes a return of the voice and opportunity, and so a commensurate love. The past is vindicated and answered by the present. So the speaker concludes this section by summarising all that she has described: she loves with every aspects of her being her tears and her smiles and even the life within her, her breath. The sonnet has shown us the whole woman, “all of my life!”, and now it concludes with an even stronger hope: “and, if God choose./ I shall but love thee better after death.” Because this relationship is so right and has divine blessing, the speaker can express the hope that it will last even beyond the grave. In this, the most triumphant sonnet of the sequence, the woman seizes victory: God-ordained, woman-written victory.