“How Do I Love Thee” is a sonnet written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that expresses the “inexpressible” kind of love people have. It talks about the love that transcends life and reaches the afterlife.
Elizabeth Barret Browning was one of the most accomplished women poets of the Victorian Era. She was not just a poet, but a person to bring a fresh air of change to the stale society of her time.
She worked to stop the inhumane practice of slavery, campaigned extensively to change the child labor laws, and created verses that could move people with just one read. She was also the wife of another famous poet, Robert Browning.
But the stature and influence of Robert Browning’s career as a poet did not overshadow his wife’s career. Her poetry prowess made her a rival to the likes of Tennyson.
The sonnet “How Do I Love Thee,” also called Sonnet 43 is a poem that expresses love. Love is expressed in the purest form as she does not speak of a specific love.
Let’s take a look at the poem and then at the simplification, meaning, and analysis of it.
How Do I Love Thee 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.
How do I love you? Let me count all the ways My love for you covers my entire soul, from length, breadth, and height. I love you to the unknown depth and distance when my soul tries to reach for God I love you to the level of the love you need in the day, I love you whether the sun is out, or it is the night with the candlelight I love you freely with my entire devotion, as men try to do the right thing I love you purely, as purely as people who turn away from praise I love you with the passion I felt while battling my old griefs, and with my childhood faith I love you with the same love I had for my saints (but I lost it) I love you for my entire life, with every breath, every happy or sad moment. And if I die, I will love you even more in the afterlife.
Meaning and Analysis of the Sonnet
As readers can understand after reading the simplified version of the sonnet, this is a love poem. But what’s special is the type and intensity of love Browning expresses.
The essence of the poem is how beautifully the poet has expressed her love. But notice how in no line a relationship has been defined. While this seems more like romantic love, there are no genders assigned to it.
The other important thing to note is that there is no concrete way to measure love. You cannot put the love in a beaker to measure it. So Browning uses abstract concepts and ways to express her love’s magnitude.
Let’s divide the stanzas and analyze them to better understand the minute details of the poem and enjoy the beautiful way this sonnet has been written.
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.
Perhaps the most beautiful line of the sonnet is the second line where the poet says how much she loves the person. She says that the love is spread throughout the entire dimensions of her soul.
When her soul reaches out to the unknown and distant place to feel divine, the love is covered all over this distance. Of course, there is no way to determine this distance, making her love for this person infinite.
The first stanza is all about abstractness. We do not have any concrete idea 0f love, but we do know that it is beyond any way of measurement.
Where does divinity for your soul reside? We do not know, but we do know that it is very far from the place we are physically present. Her love for the person transcends space and time, even the mind.
I love thee to the level of everyday
The quietest need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise
In the second stanza, we start to get an idea about the magnitude of the love. She says that she loves the person as much as love can be given to someone in a day.
This is still vague, but we do get a clearer idea with this line. She says that she loves this person the entire day and night.
With the third line, we start getting an even clearer picture. Her love is as free as the men who strive to do the right thing. It does not matter what restrictions she has, her love is unbound.
Not just free, but her love is also pure, just like the people who turn away from praise. This line shows that she does not need someone’s validation or something in return for loving this person.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Now love gets a more human comparison, something that we can completely grasp and understand. She loves this person with the same passion she had to survive all her grief.
Everyone has suffered from grief at some point in their lives, and we do understand clearly how much passion it takes for us to fight it and get over it. Now readers are understanding the magnitude of her love.
Her love is as strong as the passion she needed to get over her childhood faith, and it is just like the love she had for her lost saints. In other words, she is almost devotedly in love with this person.
I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God chooses, I shall love thee better after death.
The final couplet (we added the continued line from the previous stanza) shows that her love for this person is not bound by life or death. She says that she loves this person with every breath she takes.
In all the moments when she cries or smiles, the love for this person is always present. But that’s not all.
Browning says that even if she dies, her love will not die. In fact, she will love the person with even more passion in the afterlife.
Theme and Essence of the Poem
There is no need to over-analyze the poem. It is simply an expression of the love the poet has for someone, presumably her husband. But here’s the thing; the addressee of the poem is not relevant. The expression of love is.
There is no gender assigned to love, meaning that it is not a woman expressing her love to a man or vice versa. It is for everyone. And it is not strictly for lovers. It is the expression of pure, intense love.
“How Do I Love Thee” is a poem about how much a person can love someone. The intricate meanings do not matter here because there are none. It is just a beautiful expression of something abstract.
What readers should know about it is how Browning uses beautiful expressions and terms to give a graspable measure of her love. She does not just say “I love you a lot” or “I love you more than imagination.”
She defines the magnitude of her love in detail. She gives elaborate comparisons and solid details about her love. That is the essence of the poem, that is what makes this poem special.
If you liked reading this poem, how about reading more poems about love? Take a look at some great love poems and their analysis.