How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)
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.
What is more appropriate for the day before Valentine’s Day than this beautiful love sonnet. It’s one of my favorite poems and was first published by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her book Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). Most critics agree that Barrett Browning wrote the sonnets, not as an abstract literary exercise, but as a personal declaration of love to her husband, Robert Browning (who was also an important Victorian poet). Perhaps the intimate origin of the sonnets is what led Barrett Browning to create an imaginary foreign origin for them. But whatever the original motives behind their composition and presentation, many of the sonnets immediately became famous, establishing Barrett Browning as an important poet through the 19th and 20th centuries. Phrases from Barrett Browning’s sonnets, especially “How do I love thee?,” have entered everyday conversation, becoming standard figures of speech even for people who have never read her poetry.
I wanted to post this poem for all those I love, including my wonderful readers. I think my favorite part of this poem is “if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” How wonderful is that line. We know all things will be greater in heaven than on earth, so to be able to love better after death implies to me that the love in life is as great a love as can be imagined. Only in heaven could it be greater. That’s a powerful statement of love. I have family and friends whom I love with all of my heart, and I hope one day I will find love in a romantic way. If you have found that kind of love, I admire you and am jealous. If you haven’t, then I hope you too will find it someday.
For those like me who are single on Valentine’s Day, it can seem so lonely, but there is one thing I have learned over the years: you must love yourself. Before you can truly love someone else, you have to first love yourself. If there are things about yourself you don’t love, you will never allow yourself to be loved in the way we all deserve to be loved. So love yourself, and allow yourself to be loved, too. To ultimately answer Browning’s question, “How do I love thee?” I must love myself first so I can love you more.