Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Here is an analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s forty-third sonnet, which is alternately titled as How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways. This alternate title also doubles as the first line of Sonnet 43. Barrett Browning is a renowned Victorian poet who managed to achieve acclaim in her lifetime. She went on to influence many British and American poets, particularly Emily Dickinson. A prolific writer, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems came to the attention of another famous poet of the time, Robert Browning. The two poets eventually married, but were forced to wed secretly because of Barrett Browning’s father. He found out about the nuptials and disinherited his daughter. Barrett Browning and her husband moved to Italy, and both encouraged the other with their writings. She died in Italy at the age of 55.

 

Sonnet 43 Poem Summary

Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnet 43 is easily one of the most famous and recognizable poems in the English language. In the poem, the speaker is proclaiming her unending passion for her beloved. She tells her lover just how deeply her love goes, and she also tells him how she loves him. She loves him with all of her being, and she hopes God will grant her the ability to love him even after she has passed.

 

Breakdown Analysis of Sonnet 43

This poem is classified as a sonnet because it contains fourteen lines of poetry and has a fixed rhyme scheme of abba abba cdcd cd.  One can assume that Barrett Browning is also the speaker of the poem, since it is well known just how deeply she and Robert Browning loved and cared for each other.  The speaker is talking directly to her beloved in the sonnet; she uses personal pronouns such as “I” and “you.”

Based on the initial line, it appears that the speaker has been asked a question prior to reciting Sonnet 43. The first line also serves as the motivation for the rest of the work.  Barrett Browning writes,

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

She then uses the last thirteen lines of the poem to show just how much she loves her husband.

Lines 2-4 of Sonnet 43 provide the first way in which the speaker loves her husband.  Barrett Browning writes,

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.

Here she is describing that her love is as deep and wide and tall as it can possibly be.  It is so deep and wide and tall, in fact, that she cannot even “see” the edges of it: it is infinite. Barrett Browning uses consonance in line two in order to convey just how much she loves her husband.  The repetition of the “th” sound gives the line movement, which signifies that her love for him is ongoing.

In the next two lines, Barrett Browning continues to show her husband how much she loves him.  She writes,

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

These lines are particularly lovely in their simplicity.  While her love knows no bounds, the speaker also loves her beloved in ordinary, everyday life.  She needs him as much as she needs other basic necessities of life.

In lines seven and eight, Barrett Browning writes of two others ways she loves.  She writes,

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

These lines of Sonnet 43 give an innate sense of feeling to her love.  Just as men naturally strive to do what is good and right, she freely loves.  In addition, she loves him purely, just as men turn from praise in order to maintain humility.  The speaker does not want thanks or attention for her love; just like good and just men, she loves because it is what she has to do.  Using these two similes in these two lines strengthens the tone of love and adoration in the poem.

Barrett Browning continues with the pattern of showing how much she loves her husband.  She writes,

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

Barrett Browning’s diction here is interesting, particularly because she is taking the feelings she has about something relatively negative and comparing it to the feelings she has for her husband.  Old griefs can be defines as anything that a person passionately despises.  She is telling her husband here that she has as much passion for him as she does for those things in life that she just cannot stand.  She also loves him with the faith of a child, which is a particularly lovely line.  Children’s faith is usually steadfast and true.  Just like a child has faith, so, too, does the speaker have love for her husband.

Barrett Browning continues with this religious motif in the next lines.  She writes,

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…

Her “lost saints” is a reference to all of those people she once loved and adored in her life.  The love she once felt for them, that she eventually lost, has now been transferred into the love she feels for her husband.  Additionally, she loves him with all that she is: her breath, her smiles, and her tears.  Barrett Browning confesses that she loves her husband with all that has made up her life.

Barrett Browning ends her poem by acknowledging that she is willing to love her husband forever, if God chooses to allow her to do so.  She writes,

…and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

Not only will she love him well into eternity, she writes, but she will also love him even better than she does presently.  Her love will continue to grow with the passing of time, regardless of whether or not she or he are still alive.  The speaker’s love for her husband is so strong that not even death could destroy it.

 

Historical Background

Elizabeth Barrett Browning fell in love with Robert Browning after he reached out to her about her writing.  The couple wrote letters back and forth to each other before finally marrying, knowing full well that the marriage would not be accepted by Barrett Browning’s father.  Their marriage was not only one filled with love, but also respect for each other’s writings.  The two were each other’s biggest supporters, and so it is no surprise that Barrett Browning would include this sonnet in her collection titled Sonnets From the Portuguese, so titled because Robert Browning often referred to his wife as his little Portuguese.

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