How do I love thee? (Sonnet 43)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1896-1861
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.
Let me count the ways in which I love this sonnet.
- Before I was introduced to ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese ‘ the 44 sonnet sequence from which this 43rd sonnet has been taken, I read Pearl S. Buck’s short story of a plain, nondescript school teacher, leading a staid life, governed by routine. She gets a chance to play the poet Elizabeth, in a drama based on her life. Buck’s story is essentially about how a seemingly plain woman finds the wild passionate side of hers through playing that role. I loved the unpredictability of the tale as well as the astounding metamorphosis of a person.
I was intrigued by the life of the legendary poet who was widely read in her times (the sonnet was written between 1845-46 and published in 1850) and whose poetry transcends time.
- I am always impressed by the fact that Elizabeth wrote poetry that was deemed good by the male dominated literary society of the time. She was more popular than her husband Robert Browning, another notable poet. She conquered the male bastion of poetry, turning a very masculine poetic form to convey the feminine viewpoint.
- The Sonnet 43 from the Portuguese is about love, the quality of love, the sublime heights and the unfathomable depths of feeling. It is about the beloved and yet it transcends a person.
- There is so much maturity here. This is not merely a first crush or the fantastical musings of a love lorn person. There is romantic love which is grounded in the reality of an ‘everyday need ‘.
- The spectrum of love presented in the sonnet is amazing. In just fourteen lines, the poet counts eleven ways in which she loves her beloved. From the poet’s ‘childhood faith’, it moves on to love beyond death.
- Here is a woman expressing her love in a deeply powerful way. It is straightforward. It is philosophical. It is unapologetic. It is intellectual. The intense emotion is the most inescapable thing in her life, as is her breath.
Lastly, it is very comforting to read of a mature love that knows itself for what it is and knows its own power.