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 candlelight.
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.
The first thing you need to take into account when reading a poem like this is the life of the poet herself. She wrote poetry from the age of six, at fifteen suffered illness that caused her to live in pain for the rest of her life and took Laudanum from an early age for the pain. This will have affected how she lived her life and her attitudes to life, other people and love itself. She campaigned against slavery, wrote extensively and upon the death of William Wordsworth, was considered for the next Poet Laureate.
She met and was courted by the writer Robert Browning [My Last Duchess] in secret and married him knowing that her father would disown her and disinherit her, so she married for love only, a love that lasts, a love that is eternal. They lived in Florence where she died and her poems were published in various guises, but she is most famously known for this poem, Sonnet 43.
Now, a sonnet, for those who need to know, is a poem of 14 lines, but there is usually a certain writing style used. Ten syllables for most of the lines and fourteen lines makes for a style that is difficult to write, using iambic pentameter as well as all the usual writing literary devices [rhyme, simile, metaphor etc]. Iambic pentameter is a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable, for example “Two households, both alike in dignity.”
With that in mind, what becomes obvious is that this poem is written, presumably from her to her husband, or from one person to the next, who is totally in love with the recipient of the poem. Using the sonnet, a tool used widely by writers like Shakespeare, she lets him know just how much sha cares when she utters those now famous first words of, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Starting with a rhetorical question is a very good way to start. It is a question that does not require an answer and is the sort of technique used to make the reader or recipient think about the writer’s love for them.
Then, she answers the question, saying “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 use of words like “thee” is an example of an archaism, which is the use of a word that is considered outdated, or archaic, ancient if you like, the sort of word no longer used. Nowadays, the only time we would say this word is in the Lord’s Prayer, when said, or a hymn, when sung. All you need to do is translate each “thee” and “thou” before you try to unpack the poem, so you have it translated into modern English. When you do that, it makes better sense.
She loves this man from the top to the bottom of her soul. Her heart bursts with love and pride when she thinks of him. This is someone she has given up everything for. Her family have said no to her marrying this man and she has married him anyway. So when she says “I love thee to the level of every day’s most quiet need, by sun and candle-light,” she is expressing a romantic love that to her, is total in its extreme, the sort of love we only can dream of at times. This is a man who means everything to her. He is her picture of the perfect man.
But her love is not fake or contrived. It is a real love, a perfect love, a true love; the romantic ideal if you like. She says “I love thee freely” suggesting that the only freedom she knows is with this man. She was never free when with her family for she was never free to marry the man of her dreams. By leaving that behind, she can now be herself, which in terms of when she was alive, when Victorian values were predominant, is a rather bold move to make.
She stresses the perfection in their relationship when she says “I love thee purely” and “with the passion put to use in my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.” Now this is interesting, because in our childhood, we tend to think of what we will be and do when we grow up. Socialisation makes it so that women were brought up to think they will develop, meet someone nice, fall in love and get married, with lots of children following in their wake. So for her to say she loves him with the same kind of faith she had when she was a child is a bold statement indeed.
Then, the next verse adds more detail to her depiction of her love for the man when she says “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints.” The notion of lost saints refers partly to those we lose in life so when we lose friends or family, we tend to see them in a more positive manner than perhaps they deserve. I can think of folk who have passed who were not so wholesome in their life, but now when I think of them, I do so with rose tinted glasses on, preferring to remember the best f them, rather than the worst. Love for family will do this to a person, but love for a man [or woman] next to you in life is different, so she is saying that her love covers many different ways of loving.
The final comment she makes finishes the poem beautifully and perhaps shows why readers put this up there as one of the best love poems ever written, for when she says “I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death,” what she is saying is that in life she feels as if she has found the epitome of man, someone who she can love with everything in her and even when death separates them, either when she dies or when he dies, that love will continue.
I tend to see my love for my wife in the same way. Our families did not like it when we married. They all said it would be a six month relationship, that it was a phase, that he has only married her because he has got her pregnant; all the usual complaints thrown at a couple who want to lead their lives in the way that they want. But our love for each other is perfect, just like that of the Brownings and it is the sort that has through thick and thin, allowed us to remain married over thirty years later. Why is this the case? We jokingly says we stay together out “of spite,” but the truth is that our love makes us think of the other first in all things. When that happens, you get a relationship where you put someone else above yourself, where you think about the partner before you, where your love makes it so that you never wish to hurt the other.
Now that, for me, is a real kind of love and to me, it is the sort of love that Browning is trying to depict here in this poem. She does it by exploring the boundaries of love, but she knows her bible also, for she knows that in 1 Corinthians 13 there is a description of love that perhaps will help you consider just how much you love that special person in your life.
1 Corinthians 13 vv 4 – 8 says this:
“4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.”
What Browning is saying is that when we approach love for someone else in this light, we do so making it impossible to be self centred, or impossible to not put the loved one first. In this way, her love for her husband is the sort of love that poets and people have always dreamed of; the kind of love that never fails!