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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 43: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"

Updated on March 26, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 43

Sonnet 43, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," is the most widely anthologized sonnet from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sequence titled Sonnets from the Portuguese. It is likely the many a high school or college graduates remember that line but may have remained unaware that it is only #43 from its accompanying sequence of 43 other sonnets. The sonnet is a Petrarchan sonnet as are all of the other sonnets in the sequence. In the octave, the speaker is musing about how much she loves her belovèd, and she asks the question, “How do I love thee?”

Then the speaker proceeds to answer the question, so the reader becomes aware that the speaker is not literally addressing her belovèd, but she is addressing the thought or perhaps even an image of that belovèd. In the sestet, the speaker counts three definite ways and one possible way that she will love him throughout eternity.

Sonnet 43

H0w 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 everyday’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.

Reading of Sonnet 43

Commentary

This sonnet remains the most famous and widely read sonnet of the sequence.

First Quatrain: Rhetorical Question

H0w 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 asks an obvious rhetorical question that requires only her feeling to fill out; thus, she continues, “Let me count the ways.” She loves him with all her soul, as that soul strives for an idealism that has to be left up to faith.

The soul searches in all directions through “depth and breadth and height” for this idealism, which this speaker calls “the ends of Being and ideal Grace.”

Second Quatrain: Love and All Levels

I love thee to the level of everyday’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.

The speaker has begun with the sublime, ethereal level of her love by invoking how she loves her belovèd on the spiritual level. The speaker then brings herself quickly back to the mundane activities of daily life by saying that another way she loves him is through even the smallest daily act whether that act is performed during the daylight hours or during the night, “by sun and candle-light.”

The speaker e asserts that her love for her belovèd is spontaneous and “freely” given; therefore, she loves him in the way mankind loves freedom and acts correctly in striving to secure and maintain that freedom. She then claims that her love is as pure as those who are humble when praised. In the octave, the speaker has signified four ways she loves her belovèd: spiritually, materially, “freely,” and “purely.”

First Tercet: All Encompassing Love

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

The speaker loves him with the same ardor that used to grip her when she faced difficulties, but this “passion” is tempered by the fact that that love is also similar to the love that childhood provided her, an opposite kind of emotion from the one that caused her “old griefs.” This love includes the polar opposites of fear and love, with love tempering the fear in a balanced and useful way.

The speaker also loves the belovèd with a kind of respect and admiration that she thought she had outgrown; this group of people could be a fairly large one, including friends, teachers, relatives, and even religious “saints,” the term she uses.

But the key word is that she “seemed” to lose this love, but with her belovèd, that love is returned to her.

Second Tercet: Love Unto Eternity

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.

The next way she loves her belovèd she asserts in a breathless, almost ecstatic pronouncement: "— I love thee with the breath, / Smiles, tears, of all my life! —." Placed between dashes, these terms then signal an emphasis of expression, this assertion captures the excitement and underscores the passion in the speaker’s claim, while it prepares the reader, or listener, for the last breathtaking claim that, “if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”

So in the sestet, the speaker again professes four ways in which she loves the belovèd: with a passion of meeting former challenges but tempered by a childlike faith, with a kind of love she thought she had lost, and with her whole being. But most importantly for this speaker, she has faith that she will love this belovèd eternally.

The Brownings

Source

An Overview of Sonnets from the Portuguese

Robert Browning referred lovingly to Elizabeth as "my little Portuguese" because of her swarthy complexion—thus the genesis of the title: sonnets from his little Portuguese to her belovèd friend and life mate.

Two Poets in Love

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese remains her most widely anthologized and studied work. It features 44 sonnets, all of which are framed in the Petrarchan (Italian) form.

The theme of the series explores the development of the budding love relationship between Elizabeth and the man who would become her husband, Robert Browning. As the relationship continues to flower, Elizabeth becomes skeptical about whether it would endure. She muses on examines her insecurities in this series of poems.

The Petrarchan Sonnet Form

The Petrarchan, also known as Italian, sonnet displays in an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. The octave features two quatrains (four lines), and the sestet contains two tercets (three lines).

The traditional rime scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is ABBAABBA in the octave and CDCDCD in the sestet. Sometimes poets will vary the sestet rime scheme from CDCDCD to CDECDE. Barrett Browning never veered from the rime scheme ABBAABBACDCDCD, which is a remarkable restriction imposed on herself for the duration of 44 sonnets.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Sectioning the sonnet into its quatrains and sestets is useful to the commentarian, whose job is to study the sections in order to elucidate meaning for readers unaccustomed to reading poems. The exact form of all of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 44 sonnets, nevertheless, consists of only one actual stanza; segmenting them is for commentarian purposes primarily.

A Passionate, Inspirational Love Story

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets begin with a marvelously fantastic open scope for discovery in the life of one who has a penchant for melancholy. One can imagine the change in environment and atmosphere from beginning with the somber thought that death may be one's only immediate consort and then gradually learning that, no, not death, but love is on one's horizon.

These 44 sonnets feature a journey to lasting love that the speaker is seeking—love that all sentient beings crave in their lives! Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s journey to accepting the love that Robert Browning offered remains one the most passionate and inspirational love stories of all time.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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