Analysis of Browning’s "How do I love thee ?"

This is one of the beautiful poem on love. There is an in-depth analysis of How do I love three..

Background :
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the greatest American poets of the Victorian Era, and was as popular in Britain as she was in England. She is known for her love poetry, but also wrote a significant amount of poetry focusing on social issues. Her best known collection was The Sonnets from the Portuguese, which is a collection of Petrarchan sonnets.

Structure :
This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet. It has 14 lines written in iambic pentameter. Petrarchan sonnets are broken into two sections of patterned rhymes: the first section of 8 lines (ABBA ABBA) and the final 6 lines (CD CD CD).

Analysis :

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

The poem starts out with a rhetorical question, which draws the reader in immediately to the focus of the poem. Browning then offers the answer to her own question, and begins on the description of the different ways that she loves her subject.

The first "way" that she describes is essentially the extent of her humanity. "Depth", "breadth", and "height" are all directions of measurement, and cover all of the directions surrounding the speaker. She states that her love goes as far as her soul can reach, equivocating "love" to her "soul." Essentially, she is stating that she loves the subject as much as she can, or with her entire being.

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

These lines move from the ambient language of the first quatrain to a more applicable language. She simply states that she loves her subject in her daily life. The use of the word "need" indicates that she enjoys caring for them. This shows a more practical manner of her love, and is more active than her first descriptive passage.

Her next ways of loving are "freely" and "purely". The idea of freely loving someone as "men strive for Right" is Browning’s statement that she loves her subject because it is morally the right thing to do; the capitalization of "Right" makes the word a noun (rather than an adjective), making it a destination or goal to be reached. In the same way, her capitalization of "Praise" indicates it is also a goal. However, she notes that she is loving the subject "purely" rather than for praise, indicating that the view of outsiders regarding the dynamic of their relationship is inconsequential to her.

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

In this couplet, the author is referring to her childhood. The "old griefs" and "childhood’s faith" are both referencing the innocent emotions of children. Children have the same emotions as adults; however, children struggle with tempering their emotions. For a child, every injustice is the worst injustice, and every item of faith is undoubtedly true. In the same way, the author’s love for the subject is extreme and untempered. Interestingly, the author’s use of the childhood metaphors also indicate that she believes in the innocence of their love as well, which ties in to the purity of the emotion mentioned earlier.

The author finishes with three final reasons in rapid succession. She first notes that she loves the subject in a way that her previous loves could not maintain. Essentially, she is admitting that she loved others before the subject, but that love dissipated after a period whereas their love has not.

She continues to state that she loves the subject with "breath,/ Smiles, tears, of all my life." This is essentially a poetic rewording of the traditional wedding vow of "through sickness and health, for better or for worse, ‘til death do us part". "Breath" is representative of health, with "smiles" and "tears" representing the good times and bad times, and "all my life" being a paraphrasing of "’til death do us part."

She finishes with the statement that she’ll "love the better after death." While there is some discussion regarding who is dying, the author or the subject, ultimately this ties in to Browning’s view of Christianity and the afterlife. The idea that God "chooses" to let them continue loving after death essentially emphasizes the belief in God’s sovereignty and plan for the author; if God is the only one who could end their love, then He must have given the love for each other to them.

Theme :
The main theme of this poem is that love is to be shown. The author states the rhetorical question with a playful tone, evoking the idea of two lovers flirting. However, as the author moves beyond the first ambient description, the poem gets more personal and practical, as well as more powerful.

The ending, stating that love would continue even after the death of one (or both) indicates the second theme that their love is to be enduring. The final statement is almost a summation of the previous three statements, that the love would be extreme and untempered, that it had already surpassed the longevity of previous partners, and the evocation of marriage. Upon stating these three, the idea of the eternality of love is simply repeated in the final couplet.

Summary :

The author begins with the question of how she loves her partner, and then proceeds to list off eleven different ways. She touches on the ambient idea of feelings, and then moves onto practical ways that she does (or will) show the love. She completes the poem by emphasizing the enduring nature of their love, and iterates that their love is actually a gift from God, thus he is the only one who could end it.

The video on the recitation of the poem is referred below