Sonnet 43

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Sonnet 43

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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.

_____________________________

And here we have one of the most recognized poems in the English language. Most people within the English-speaking world know the poem’s first line, even if they have never read or studied poetry.

Sonnet 43 is of course, a sonnet, with 14 lines, in iambic pentameter, and consisting of a rhyme scheme of ABBA, ABBA, CDC, DCD (hint: faith rhymes with death and breath when accompanied by the correct accent.)

Structurally, the poem begins with a question in line 1.

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

The remainder of the sonnet is an exercise of creating this list of “ways.”

Lines 2 through 4:

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.

These lines provide the first of the ways in which the Speaker (believed to be Browning herself) loves her beloved (believed to be her husband.)

Her love, as described, is infinite, with the Speaker herself unable to see its ends as they are “out of sight.” In line two, the repetition of words ending in “th” is called consonance.

Consonance is usually connected with poetic verse. It is one of several techniques that utilize sound in order to create added emphasis on the rhyme and rhythm of a particular poem. But, it is not solely used in poetry. There are examples of it in prose as well. 

Lines 5 and 6:

I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

Here we meet the next “way” in which the Speaker loves. In contrast with the previous lines, which describe her love and limitless, here she describes her love as being precise. Her love fits the size of what is needed. These are probably my favorite lines in the poem.

Lines 7 and 8:

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

Here she lists two more ways, both more succinctly than the two by which proceed them. The increased pace really strengthens the readability of the poem. Substantively, line 7 – in describing her love as being “freely” given – implies a naturalness to her love. She compares this freely given love to the way in which men “strive for what is right” which also imbues her love, through the comparison, with the sense that it is just. Her love exists and persists because it must, and for it not to exist would not be right.

In line 8, the Speaker says that her love is pure, and she then compares it to those who turn from praise. In this way she tells us her love is humble.

Lines 9 and 10:

I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

The comparison made in these lines is interest. The Speaker says that she loves with the same passion that she has for negative old griefs. The passion, therefore, is a match for her bad feelings. Continuing, she says her love contains her childhood’s faith. This clause is a religious allusion (Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:17) but it refers to faith that is solid and trusting (the kind of faith that believes despite not being able to explain “how”.)

Lines 11 through 13:

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,

In line 11 and 12, she explains that the love she once felt for others, now gone, has been transferred to her beloved. It is unclear who exactly she means by “my lost saints” because it could interpreted in various ways. However, given that Browning’s marriage resulted disinheritance from her father, “lost saints” may refer to the love of family members, who she revered, that is now gone.

The latter half of lines 12 and all of line 13 express another way in which the Speaker loves. Breath, smiles, and tears seem to be a short summary of her entire self. She loves with her entire life. This interpretation makes more sense in light of the conclusion of the sonnet.

Line 14:

I shall but love thee better after death.

After a description of her love, in life, that is seemingly limitless, precise, free, pure, a match for all her negative passions, as unassailable as a child’s faith, and a repository for all of the love she has ever lost, the Speaker says that God willing, she will love even better in the afterlife. Her love, as she describes it, will only grow stronger even after death.


As alluded to above, Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a passionate though somewhat tumultuous love with her husband, Robert Browning. From Wiki:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (née Moulton-Barrett/ˈbraʊnɪŋ/; 6 March 1806 – 29 June 1861) was an English poet of the Victorian era, popular in Britain and the United States during her lifetime.

Born in County Durham, the eldest of 12 children, Elizabeth Barrett wrote poetry from the age of eleven. Her mother’s collection of her poems forms one of the largest extant collections of juvenilia by any English writer. At 15, she became ill, suffering intense head and spinal pain for the rest of her life. Later in life, she also developed lung problems, possibly tuberculosis. She took laudanum for the pain from an early age, which is likely to have contributed to her frail health.

In the 1840s, Elizabeth was introduced to literary society through her cousin John Kenyon. Her first adult collection of poems was published in 1838, and she wrote prolifically between 1841 and 1844, producing poetry, translation, and prose. She campaigned for the abolition of slavery, and her work helped influence reform in the child labour legislation. Her prolific output made her a rival to Tennyson as a candidate for poet laureate on the death of Wordsworth.

Elizabeth’s volume Poems (1844) brought her great success, attracting the admiration of the writer Robert Browning. Their correspondence, courtship, and marriage were carried out in secret, for fear of her father’s disapproval. Following the wedding, she was indeed disinherited by her father. In 1846, the couple moved to Italy, where she would live for the rest of her life. They had a son, known as “Pen” (Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning) (1849–1912). Pen devoted himself to painting until his eyesight began to fail later in life; he also built up a large collection of manuscripts and memorabilia of his parents; however, since he died intestate, it was sold by public auction to various bidders, and scattered upon his death. The Armstrong Browning Library has tried to recover some of his collection, and now houses the world’s largest collection of Browning memorabilia. Elizabeth died in Florence in 1861. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband shortly after her death.

Elizabeth’s work had a major influence on prominent writers of the day, including the American poets Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. She is remembered for such poems as “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43, 1845) and Aurora Leigh (1856).

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