How Do I Love Thee

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s widely beloved “Sonnet XLIII,” though highly romantic, also explores themes of religion and rationality in relation to love. The narrator uses religious allusions to illustrate her love. The first example she gives demonstrates how she loves her partner with the whole expanse of her soul: “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” (lines 3-4). The two uses of enjambment in this sentence emphasize the breadth of the narrator’s love, which is illustrated through God’s expansive power.  

The narrator also states that she loves her partner with the same passion she had for “old griefs,” her “childhood’s faith,” and her “lost saints” (lines 10, 11-12). Each of these – sorrow, innocence, religion – are all-encompassing experiences. They also suggest that the narrator has had a troubled life. Though she lost the passion she felt in each of these scenarios, these lines indicate that she now loves her partner with the same intensity; she views her partner idolatrously, as she would a saint.  

While the narrator describes her love in dramatically romantic terms, she also provides a rationale that justifies her affection. Browning structures the poem as a list with her introductory line “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” (line 1). She then proceeds to list seven of them, repeating the phrase “I love thee” to reinforce the extent of her affection (line 1). This repetition creates a list format that adds a sense of rationality to the poem. The narrator also states that “I love thee freely, as men strive for right; / I love thee purely, as they turn from praise” (line 7-8). The narrator’s assertion that she freely and humbly loves her partner is especially significant when considered alongside details of Browning’s life. Her choice to elope with her partner and escape from her father’s control adds an additional layer of meaning to the sonnet’s focus on long-lasting, freely chosen love.  

The theme of this sonnet calls back to one of Browning’s earlier works, “Sonnet XIV.” In this sonnet Browning writes, “But love me for love’s sake, that evermore / Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity” (lines 14-15). This sentiment of long-lasting love, which remains consistent throughout Browning’s sonnets, is especially present in “Sonnet XLIII.” While Browning writes of a dramatic and passionate romance, it is a love that will last “after death” (line 14). In this sonnet, love is literally everything, from the minutest aspect of life to absolute religious devotion. 

3 thoughts on “How Do I Love Thee”

  1. The patterns and effects you highlight in your reading are really interesting. I was especially fascinated by the contrast you pointed to between the dramatic content and the rational form, and I think you could build on that reading more to see how the poem complicates it’s appearance as ideal romantic love. Another avenue you could explore would be to look at the ambiguity in the poem and how that creates doubleness. For example in these lines,“I love thee freely, as men strive for right; / I love thee purely, as they turn from praise,” how much does she love him? That depends on whether or not men strive for right, and whether or not they turn from praise.

  2. You bring up a good point about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s use of religious allusion in relation to love and I think a similar point can be made about Christina Rossetti’s poems that we read for today. In Rossetti’s work, her sonnets in “Monna Innominata” especially, Rossetti asserts that religion and worship go hand in hand with love. For example, the sixth sonnet in “Monna Innominata” in which the speaker claims she cannot love her beloved if she does not love God and vice versa.

  3. In your highlighting of specific patterns of “Sonnet XLIII”, I find it particularly interesting how you compared love and its emotional principles with that of passion, whether expressed through the fluctuating emotions of daily life or through a sense of admiration of the divine. In your analysis of how the poem can allude to Browning’s life, I thought this interpretation was fascinating given the repetition of “I love thee.” In consideration of contextually understanding Browning’s life in that she was restricted of loving her partner, perhaps the repetition of this phrase works to give the narrator a sense in agency of whom they love and the fact that they can. This could also bring up a question about the form and content of the sonnet in relation to its meaning.

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