How Do I Love Thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning Analysis
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” is a sonnet by the 19thsury poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is her most famous and best-loved poem having first appeared as sonnet 43 in her collection Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). Although the poem is traditionally interpreted as a love sonnet from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her husband, the poet Robert Browning, the speaker and addressee are never identified by name.
In “How Do I Love Thee?” true love is depicted as long-lasting and even eternal. However, the poem also reveals a tension between love as an attachment to earthly life and the things of this world, and love as something that transcends life on earth.
By evoking her religious faith so often, the speaker likens her romantic love for her beloved to a religious or spiritual feeling. At first it seems as if her love for this person on earth might be as powerful as love for God. But while the speaker acknowledges the strength of her romantic feelings here and now, she also expresses the wish that both she and her lover will eventually transcend their earthly lives and go to heaven together, where their love will be, with God’s help, “better after death.” Romantic love, for her, is ultimately closely linked to and perhaps even indistinguishable from love for God.
The poem thus argues that true love is eternal, surpassing space, time, and even death. Although the poem is often read biographically, as an address from the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her husband, this depiction of eternal and all-powerful love could also apply to any human love, since the speaker and addressee are both unnamed in the poem itself.
From the poem’s first lines, the speaker describes her love in terms that sound spiritual or religious. For example, she asserts: “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach.” Crucially, it is her “soul” that is expanding as a result of her love. Love, for her, engages the soul as well as the body. She also explains that her love helps her “feel” “the ends of being and ideal grace.” “The ends” here connotes the “goals” of existence-which, for the speaker, is the attainment of “ideal grace.” The speaker is clearly evoking the religious meaning of “grace” as a gift from God. If her love gives her grace, then she means that it is bringing her closer to God.
The speaker also writes that she loves her beloved “with [her] childhood’s faith” and “with a love (she seemed to lose / With [her] lost saints.” Her “childhood’s faith and her “lost saints” presumably refer to the Christianity in which she was raised. The speaker’s description of her “lost saints” suggests that perhaps she has experienced a loss of faith as an adult, but this new romantic love restores her faith in God and gives her back the love she had seemed to lose.”
The speaker’s love is undeniably grounded in earthly life; she seems to imagine that she will spend “all [her] life” with this person and devote all he “breath,” “smiles.” and “tears” to them. At the same time, however, she also imagines that her love will continue even after this time. She hopes that if God choose,” she and her lover will go to heaven and she will be able to love this beloved “better after death.” This implies that the speaker sees romantic love as something that, with faith in God, can continue after death and indeed even deepen.
Ultimately, the speaker’s romantic love does not compromise her love for God. Rather, she likens her romantic love to a religious experience that helps her recapture her “childhood’s faith and brings her closer to God and “ideal grace.” She prays that God’s salvation in heaven will perfect her earthly love (making it “better after death”) and render it eternal. In this way, the poem argues that romantic love is closely related to-and indeed perhaps transforms into-love for God.
There is an element of Love vs. Reason in this sonnet. In what is arguably one of the most famous opening lines of a poem in English literature -“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”-the speaker embarks on a project of listing the ways in which she loves her beloved. The poem thus begins as a means of attempting to justify love in rational terms. By expressing her desire to “count the ways,” the speaker suggests that her love can be explained on an intellectual level. At the same time, however, she admits that love is actually something more profound, spiritual, and dictated by fate. In this sense, her opening determination to “count the ways” in which she loves slowly succumbs to an understanding that love is often not a rational feeling and can’t be explained.
The speaker sets out to “count the ways” in which she loves, and this organizational structure shapes the form of the rest of the poem. Over the course of the poem, the speaker names seven ways in which she loves her partner. This might at first look like a counter-intuitive or overly argumentative format for a love poem, and by framing her declarations in this unusual way, the speaker implies that love can be measured and counted.”
In particular, she suggests that her love for her partner is reasoned and rational because it is grounded in the everyday, mundane actions of life: “I love thee to the level of every day’s/Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.” This love isn’t necessarily the stuff of legends or dramatic romances; rather, it exists in mutual bonds of day-to-day care. The speaker also explains that she loves her beloved “purely, as (men) turn from praise,” implying that her love isn’t based on pride or self-aggrandizement. By focusing on these virtues of purity and self-sacrifice, she implies that love can be measured simply in the degree of care one gives the other person.
And yet, even as the speaker declares that her love can be “counted,” she frequently uses language that implies her love is something huge, all encompassing, and resistant to bounds or limits. For instance, she declares: “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach.” Which sounds potentially infinite. The idea of infinity continues into the end of the poem, when the speaker expresses the desire that she and her beloved will love after death in the afterlife-which is to say, infinitely, because in Christian theology, salvation leads to eternal life in heaven.
“How Do I Love Thee?” begins by declaring that it is possible to “count” the ways in which one loves. But it ends by looking forward to heaven and the afterlife, a time in which it will no longer be possible to measure love, because love will be infinite. In this way, the poem first imagines love as something rational or measurable, but ends by asserting that love sometimes can’t be explained by reason or measured, no matter how hard one might try to do so.
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