By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’ One of the most famous opening lines in all of English love poetry. Yet how much do we really know about this poem? Who can quote the second line, for instance? The poet who wrote this sonnet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is now overshadowed by the work of her husband, Robert Browning, so it’s worth delving a little deeper into this love poem, by way of close textual analysis.
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.
First, about the poet:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) was one of the most popular poets of the Victorian era. She was born in County Durham, England in 1806 and spent much of her childhood in Herefordshire, and although she received no formal education, she read widely at home and was well-versed in the classics. She was plagued by health problems and spent much of her life inside the family home, with her father unwilling to let her see many people.
She would, however, begin a celebrated correspondence with the young poet Robert Browning in 1844, following a fan letter he sent her declaring his admiration for her volume Poems. The Barretts’ family life, and Mr Barrett’s hostility to Robert Browning, would be dramatised in the Rudolf Besier play The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1930), after the name of the London road where they lived.
In 1846, Elizabeth Barrett secretly eloped with Robert and married him, despite her father’s wishes to the contrary. The couple went to live in Italy and had several children. Their son, known as ‘Pen’, later stated that despite his parents’ earlier romantic correspondence, after his mother and father were married they never wrote to each other again, because they were never apart.
Barrett Browning’s major achievements are the long verse-novel Aurora Leigh (1857), about a young orphan girl who goes to live in Italy and becomes a successful writer, and the sonnet sequence about her love for Robert, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). This volume contains her most widely anthologised poem, the sonnet which begins ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’
‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’: summary
The poem is a famous one – or at least its first line is – but the poet who wrote it is less famous now as a poet in her own right, and more familiar as the husband of Robert Browning, whom she courted through a series of extraordinary love letters in the 1840s.
It was not always this way. Once upon a time, Robert Browning was the struggling obscure poet and Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the one who, upon Wordsworth’s death in 1850, was considered for the post of Poet Laureate. (In the end, Tennyson got the job.)
But after Barrett Browning’s untimely death in 1861, Robert Browning’s star rose while the posthumous reputation of his wife declined. Who can now name the title of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem? Her long verse novel Aurora Leigh, perhaps? Or her powerful indictment of slavery, ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’? No, her poetic legacy in the popular imagination has shrunk to just ten words: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’
Even those ten words aren’t indelibly linked to Barrett Browning herself. Many people mistakenly attribute them to Shakespeare, and even a notable film, 10 Things I Hate about You – which borrowed its plot loosely from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – used as its ‘Shakespearean’ tagline: ‘How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways.’
But the poem is not one of Shakespeare’s addressed to the Fair Youth, but rather a love poem written about Barrett Browning’s own beloved, Robert.
The poem was first published in a sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese, in 1850, though the poems that make up the sequence were written around five years earlier. It’s a little-known fact that the first ever sonnet sequence in English was written by a woman, and throughout history the sonnet sequence has tended to be associated with male poets: Petrarch, Sir Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, George Meredith.
And although Barrett Browning’s title sounds as though she is translating poems written by some Portuguese sonneteer, that title Sonnets from the Portuguese was in fact a little in-joke: ‘Portuguese’ was Robert’s affectionate nickname for Elizabeth, so these sonnets are from her and her alone: sonnets from Robert’s beloved ‘Portuguese’.
‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’: analysis
In terms of its form, upon closer analysis we realise that Barrett Browning’s poem is not even a Shakespearean sonnet but a Petrarchan one, rhymed abbaabbacdcdcd.
She uses anaphora – repetition of the same few words at the beginning of successive sentences or clauses – to explore, in summary, the various forms that love can take, and the many ways in which she loves Robert.
Robert is figured as almost Christ-like: he inspires in Elizabeth ‘a love I seemed to lose / With my lost saints’, as if love for him has taken the place of religious worship. There is a strong religious vein to the poem: ‘My soul’, ‘my childhood’s faith’, ‘lost saints’, culminating in the final declaration of hope in the afterlife: ‘and, if God choose, / I shall but love thee better after death.’
After all, ‘I love you’ was a cliché when Barrett Browning took up her pen, and she was confronted with the same problem which has plagued love poets since time immemorial – something that Carol Ann Duffy tackled through creating a collage of quotations from famous love poems. Barrett Browning found a way to create a tender love poem that is infused with spiritual language, to suggest a love that is pure (‘childhood’s faith’) and deep (‘the ends of being and ideal grace’).
‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ remains a widely anthologised love poem, but deeper analysis of its form and further delving into its origins reveal something that is much more than just a ‘soppy’ love poem. The poem fuses devotional verse with the language of love poetry to produce something the Victorians took to their hearts, which has remained a mainstream favourite among anthologists and fans of classic love poetry.
Discover more about the Brownings with our short biography of Robert Browning, our summary of his ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, and our short overview of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (The Roycrofters, 1916), Wikimedia Commons.