Sonnets from the Portuguese 43: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.Poetry Foundation
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.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning used sonnets, most memorably known in her “Sonnets for the Portuguese.” These sonnets are in an Italian format with fourteen lines, consisting of two sections: octave and sestet, and poetic aspects including a caesura, enjambment, grave, and volta.
It is often used as a cliché and sometimes overly romanticized, but the poem is a beautiful skein compared to the greeting card words unraveled in a small thread for ‘feel-good’ phrases.
In “Sonnet 43” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, contrary forces of “the promise of progress” and “the emptiness of long-held beliefs” reveal themselves in the Italian sonnet. The poet repeats the anaphora phrase “I love thee” throughout the poem. She begins by introducing her start of a monologue as if her lover, presumed to be Robert, asked her how she loves him.
Barrett Browning incorporates rhetoric questions and anaphora in this sonnet for her husband. The personal aspect made me feel like I was looking at a picture of a couple who might have gotten into a discussion.
The female might have asked her husband why he chose her, and when he will say those three words. Instead, she takes it upon herself to rhetorically ask. Before the next line, Browning does not wait for an answer because she will “count the ways” (line 1). She lists “I love thee” on every scale from a measurable or physical stance, quotidian or everyday living, and spiritual sense because the love she has is unconditional and surpasses every scale (lines 2, 5, and 14).
She progresses through the three venues or areas of life she can love him. Quatrain one explains the philosophical sense of love. She describes it as finite “for the ends of being and ideal grace” (line 4).
Next, Browning describes her love as a quotidian or “level of every day” (line 5). Love is “quiet, freely, and purely” type of love (lines 6-8). Both of these areas have a void and emptiness. The philosophical definition is for the ‘scholar’ and every day for the unbelievers. The best and purest type of love comes next.
The last sestet is a religious or spiritual love that is unconditional. Despite what happens “in my old griefs,” she will love Robert in times of “smiles, tears, of all my life” (lines 10 and 13). The ending references a love that continues in Heaven as a perfect love that is not possible on earth. In each sonnet separation, the love progresses in intensity as she promises that she will “love thee” in the philosophical, every day, and faithful ways.