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.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

At some point in every relationship, be it romantic, familial or otherwise, the question is put out there. Do you love me? How much? As children we swing our arms wide, smile holey smiles and say "This much, I love you this much mommy." As we get older the question is no longer a silly game played to see what cute response we'll come up with. Rather, it becomes either a more serious question or a slick method of getting someone to bend to your will. With darkness in their hearts some will press upon the virtuous asking them to give in, to submit to their desires, "Don't you love me enough to be with me?" Others, usually parents, will request favors "How much do you love me? Enough to go to the store and pick up some milk?" Occasionally a couple comprised of two sickeningly sweet individuals will pose this question in anticipation of answers like "I love you more than my mint condition Babe Ruth rookie card." Or better yet, the response is "I don't love you, idiot." served with a slight smile that evokes playful banter ending in tussled hair and well kissed lips.

I'm inclined to think Mrs. Browning falls into the sickeningly sweet group under the category listing of "hopeless romantic," which makes sense considering she lived during the Romantic Movement*. Her poem, Sonnet XLIII, also known as How do I love thee?, answers this question leaving little doubt as to her devotion and the depth of her feelings for the subject of it. In fact, the poem brings to mind the sloping curves of feminine handwriting put, in ink, upon parchment that retains the light scent of flowers in a nearby vase. That's how romantic this poem is.

Actually the only thing more romantic than the words she plucked from within and put to paper for all to read, is the story behind them.

Born the oldest of twelve children, Elizabeth Barrett was a bright young woman. She taught herself Hebrew, which she spoke fluently, delved into Greek studies and had a deep passion for her Christian faith. Her education was one of the few bright spots in her young life as she was plagued with health problems, opposed her father's slave labour in Jamaica and suffered deep heartache after the loss of a brother. She was so torn by his death that she spent a number of years in her bedroom, secluding herself from the outside world in all but her writing. It was a collection of poems written during this time that caught the attention of fellow poet Robert Browning.

The two would exchange a total of 574 letters in the following year, detailing a romance that would inspire the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street and that was directly opposed by her father. For some bizarre reason the man didn't want his children to marry, perhaps because he hoped to keep them at work on his plantation where he had already sent a majority of them.

But Robert and Elizabeth were true romantics and eloped in Florence, Italy.

Where does the poem fit in, you ask? Elizabeth wrote this poem, along with all of the others in Sonnets from the Portuguese in secret before the marriage. They were dedicated to her husband, each a testament to the love that would not be denied.

and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.


* Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived from 1806-1861, essentially growing up during the Romantic Movement which ended in the mid 19th century. Because of this her own writing was greatly affected by the great Romantic poets she read. Although she is actually considered a Victorian poet, her tendency to write sonnets, and other aspects of her poetry, sometimes lean toward Romantic styles which earned her the label of "a Victorian poet with Romantic tendencies."

For those interested in rhyme schemes, this particular poem follows the Petrarchan sonnet style, with a rhyme scheme of abba abba cdc ece.

CST Approved

Before she married Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a collection of poems, dedicated to him that would be deemed one of the greatest collections of verse in 19th century England, which was one of the world's most productive eras for poetry. The poems were sonnets, rigidly structured yet bursting with life. Behind the ornate vocabulary and imagery, the poems captured the feeling of relief and joy that the young Elizabeth felt when she was released from her emotional prison by finding someone who was matched to her in intellect and temperament.

It is a complex and romantic story, which I know little about, but which is mentioned elsewhere.

But what I do know is that out of this moving story, and the poetry it produced, only one thing has entered the popular culture, out of context. And that is the line:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
If you are like me, you probably have heard this line, or more likely, variations or parodies on it, from before you can remember. And in three decades of having it referenced, poor ill-cultured fool that I am, I only recently realized that it comes from the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And that while it is beyond cliche today, it comes from fresh, emotionally urgent poetry.

It is rather unfortunate that a complex, important collection of poetry should enter the public consciousness only through a single line, which has lost all context and is used as a worn-out cliche. But given the general attitude towards poetry, even amongst those who should know better, it is not that surprising.

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