An Analysis of Elizabeth Browning’s ‘How Do I Love Thee?’

Reputed to be one of the most celebrated poets of the Victorian period, Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived between 1806 and 1861. Her living years imply that Browning’s work straddles both the Romantic and Victorian ethos and eras. She was the wife of the equally revered English poet, Robert Browning.  ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ which is also known as ‘Sonnet 43’ was among the poems inspired by the deep love that Mrs Browning had for her husband. She wrote this collection of poems while abroad in Italy between 1845 and 1846. It was published in 1850 under the now famous title, Sonnets from the Portuguese. The title itself was a detour as both lovers wanted to disguise the affection contained in the poems and direct the readers’ attention from themselves. The collection was made up of 44 poems and ‘How Do I Love Thee’ is the penultimate poem in the anthology.

Elizabeth Browning’s ‘Sonnet 43’ is, therefore, a deeply personal poem. By this it is meant that it was inspired by events or incidents in the life of its author. As has just been stated, this personal life event was the love shared between the couple-poets, Mr and Mrs Browning. However, the analysis of the poem will also reveal that the writer was also influenced by some of the beliefs and historical events in her society.

First, it should be stated that Browning’s ‘Sonnet 43’ is based on a type of sonnet called the Italian sonnet. The Italian sonnet is also called the Petrarchan sonnet. It is structurally different from the English sonnet in that while the English sonnet is made up of three quatrains and a couplet, the Italian sonnet is made up of an octave (first 8 lines) and a sestet (last 6 lines). While the English sonnet has the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg, the Italian sonnet has the rhyme scheme abba abba cdc cdc. The rhyme for the octave is regular while that of the sestet can vary. For instance, in ‘Sonnet 43’, the rhyme scheme is abba abba cdcdcd. Traditionally, the octave is used to raise a point of argument, ask a question or state the thesis of the poem, while the sestet is used to resolve the argument, answer the question, confirm or refute the thesis raised in the octave.

In Browning’s ‘Sonnet 43’, a question is asked and the rest of the poem is devoted to providing an answer to the question. This device is known as hypophora, a situation whereby the poet asks a question and quickly proceeds to provide an answer. This is one of those rare instances where an attempt is made to answer a poetic question in a literary work. The question raised in the first line of the poem is: ‘How do I love thee?’ This is supposed to be a rhetorical question, but then the persona decides to provide an answer by stating ‘Let me count the ways’. Thus, right from the first line, it is obvious that the persona intends to state the many ways that she loves her lover. It should be noted that this poem uses enjambment which means that ideas flow from line to line. The second and third lines of the poem read; ‘I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight’.

 It is pertinent to point out that the persona uses hyperbolic and superlative terms in discoursing the love she has for her lover. The terms ‘depth, breadth and height’ are synonymous with the three dimensions in mathematics, often used to measure the shape of objects. By deploying these terms, Mrs Browning does not only allude to the mathematical and scientific age in which she lived and wrote, she also conjures up an image of love as concrete rather than an abstraction that it is usually known to go by. Giving shape to love implies that love exists and can be interrogated as a physical entity. Again, the juxtaposition of physical and mathematical (scientific) terms with the word ‘soul’ at once creates a semantic/collocational clash between the physical and the spiritual, a poetic dialectic that is sustained throughout the poem. But the semantic clash also makes it possible to imagine both soul and love as concrete entities. It can then be seen how the poem embodies both Victorian and Romantic ideals. The expression ‘when feeling out of sight’ is used to suggest that invisibility in love is an abstract construct projected by the individual’s vulnerable emotions and fear which can be mitigated by a conscious attempt at concretising reality. In a true-love situation, out of sight is not out of mind.

The expression in the fourth line, ‘For the ends of being and ideal grace’, can be read as an idea that connects the previous line. But then again it has its own internal dialectic or opposition as ‘ends of being’ contrasts with ‘ideal grace’. What the persona appears to imply is that her love is constant no matter her state of her existence; in desperate times or in the best of times. Lines 5 and 6 read: ‘I love thee to the level of everyday’s/Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light’. Elizabeth was sick most of the time and was known to keep indoors. It was the thought of loved ones and support got from her father, brothers, sisters and, later, husband that kept her alive. ‘Sun and candle-light’ are used in the poem to represent day and night. By using these symbols, the persona emphasises that she needs her loved ones to survive each day of her existence. Apart from this, there was also for Elizabeth the need to read and write and I suppose that it is fitting that she compares these sacred activities to the way she needs her husband and lover to survive. It is important to state that reading and writing kept Elizabeth happy most of her life. It was about the only things that gave her pleasure and helped her bear the pains of her existence that were occasioned by illness.    

Lines 7 and 8 state: ‘I love thee freely, as men strive for right/I love thee purely, as they turn from praise’. The Victorian period in which Elizabeth Browning lived and wrote was a time of intense agitations when both men and women fought to be liberated from their enslaved positions. The expression also echoes the French Revolution that ushered in Romanticism in English history and literature. Thus, line 7 constitutes a historical allusion. Line 8 appeals or alludes to the nobler side of man, which is noted for being humble or modest and for always redirecting all glory for achievements recorded to God.

 Lines 9 and 10 read: ‘I love thee with the passion put to use/In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.’ These lines convey the sense of passionate love that the persona has for her man and which she compares to the passion she had for God when she was a child and her tenacity in self-improvement through reading and writing during her years of illness. Thus, the passion with which the persona loves her man is a combination of her entire life’s experiences rolled into one. One could almost feel the weight and force of that love.

 In the next lines, she writes ‘I love thee with a love I seemed to lose/With my lost saints.’ Elizabeth Browning lost very important people in life, including her brothers. These were very painful losses that grieved her throughout life. But the lines also allude to the gradual loss of faith in religion which was noted in the Victorian period and in the personal life of the writer. This kind of love is less spiritual and more earthly, compared to the other forms of love earlier discoursed in the poem. Thus, there are various dimensions of love in this poem.

 In the final lines of the poem, the persona states, ‘I love thee with the breath,/smiles, tears, of all my life; and if God choose[s],/I shall but love thee better after death’. It can then be seen that the persona’s love is not only earthly, but it is also trans-earthly. Its raw material is drawn from all of her life’s experiences, which makes it such an awe-inspiring and solemn kind of love. This love takes into consideration all the dimensions of an individual’s existence. It admits everything and spares nothing. This love is practised on earth but it is very likely to continue beyond this realm.

Among the poetic devices deployed by the poet are repetition, caesura, alliteration, contrast, assonance, symbols, allusion, hyperbole, simile or comparison and metaphor. The expression ‘I love thee’ is repeated throughout the poem. Caesura is replete in the poem as can be seen in lines 1, 3, 6, 7, 12, and 13. The poet uses these breaks or pauses to introduce important ideas in the poem. Most of the comparisons and contrasts in the poem are achieved through the use of simile as can be seen in the word ‘as’. The expression ‘childhood’s faith’ is a metaphor for the Christian religion while ‘old griefs’ metaphorises Elizabeth’s illness.


How does Elizabeth Browning make love such a solemn subject matter in the poem?  

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