How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)

How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning – 1806-1861

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’s “Sonnet 43,” often referred to as “How do I love thee?”, is arguably the most famous love poem in history. EBB, as she is sometimes referred to, was born on March 6, 1806, at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, England. She was an English poet of the Romantic Movement. 

When she was 14, Elizabeth developed a lung ailment that plagued her for the rest of her life. Doctors began treating her with morphine, which she would take until her death. While saddling a pony when she was fifteen, Elizabeth also suffered a spinal injury. Despite her ailments, her education continued to flourish. Throughout her teenage years, Elizabeth taught herself Hebrew so that she could read the Old Testament; her interests later turned to Greek studies. Due to her continually weakening health, she was forced to spend a year at the sea of Torquay accompanied by her brother Edward, whom she referred to as “Bro.” He drowned later that year while sailing at Torquay, and Elizabeth returned home emotionally broken, becoming an invalid and a recluse.

After the death of her brother, Elizabeth Barrett spent the next five years in her bedroom at her father’s home. She continued writing, however, and in 1844 produced a collection simply titled Poems. This volume gained the attention of poet Robert Browning, whose work Elizabeth had praised in one of her poems, and he wrote her a letter. Over the next twenty months, Elizabeth and Robert, who was six years her junior, exchanged 574 letters. In 1845 they met each other in person for the first time. Their correspondence, courtship, and marriage were carried out in secret, for fear of her father’s disapproval, for good reason.

Their romance was bitterly opposed by her tyrannical father, who did not want any of his children to marry. In 1846, the couple eloped. The couple moved to Pisa and then Florence, where they continued to write. They had a son, Robert “Pen” Browning, in 1849. Her father never spoke to her again. Elizabeth’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, dedicated to her husband and written in secret before her marriage, was published in 1850. Critics generally consider the Sonnets—one of the most widely known collections of love lyrics in English—to be her best work. It is in Sonnets, that “How Do I Love Thee?” first appeared. Admirers have compared her imagery to Shakespeare and her use of the Italian form to Petrarch.

She died in Florence on June 29, 1861, and was buried in the English Cemetery. Robert and Pen Browning soon moved to London. During his wife’s lifetime, Robert Browning was not known as much as a poet as the husband of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is not until after her death that Robert became known as a renowned poet in his own right.

Of all the poets I have featured on this blog, Browning is the only one whose grave I have visited. Though I went to the cemetery to research Americans in Florence, the cemetery is best known for the tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and people come from all over to pay homage to Browning and celebrate her work.

Grave of Elizabeth Barrett Browning at the English Cemetery, Florence, Italy

It wouldn’t be a real Valentine’s Day post without a picture of my card from Susan. Every year, they are always so beautiful and special.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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