Sonnet 43: "How Do I Love Thee"
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The courtship, love, and marriage of Robert and Elizabeth Browning form one of the most heart-warming stories of the Victorian literary age. She and her siblings had been shut out of most dealings with the world by a selfish, devoted, and tyrannical father. When she met Robert Browning, a passionate soul if there ever was one, and morally as upright and strong as an oak, it was as if the sun had broken in upon a life of constant twilight. She broke with her father, though she was never in good health — and that’s an understatement. She and Robert went on to enjoy a marriage of mutual artistic inspiration and love.
In those days, every American or Englishman who aspired to the heights of art went to Italy, and people went there also for the dry air and the healthy climate — so long as you kept clear of the marshlands and their malaria. The Brownings went to Italy too, and there they met and became close friends with another literary family, the Hawthornes, from New England. Many years later, Rose Hawthorne would edit and publish a collection of the letters her mother and father wrote. They too loved one another most dearly, and that does come across in their correspondence. In one letter, we hear that Nathanael has had migraines, and Elizabeth Browning wanted to come over with a special concoction for a remedy. Happily married couples do seem to flourish in one another’s company, and if anybody was going to have a potion for headaches, it would be the near-cripple Elizabeth.
When she died, the bad-tempered poet Edward Fitzgerald — now most famous for his rather loose translation, from the Persian, of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat — wrote that now at least people wouldn’t have to put up with more poems like her Aurora Leigh. Robert was outraged, and tore Fitzgerald to pieces in an angry poem; Robert Browning could pin a character as well as anybody this side of Shakespeare, so you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side. “Kicking you seems the common lot of curs,” he wrote, but then he thought of an even more appropriate way to give the man thanks, which I won’t mention. Surely Robert must often have turned, in his sorrow, to poems like ours today, which Elizabeth wrote in his honor before they were married. She called them “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” as if she had translated them, but they were hers entirely. She was, if anything, more popular as a poet than Robert was, at least during her lifetime, though now we recognize Robert as the greatest master of the dramatic monologue who ever lived.
If you expect this famous love poem to describe Robert’s smile, or other graces of his person, or the sensuous feelings he inspired in Elizabeth, you will be taken aback. Those things aren’t there. Instead, it seems that she loves Robert with a love that has restored to her a faith in God that she had lost, along with an aim beyond the world and its workaday life, a love that spirits us to realms of “ideal grace,” with that word “ideal” pronounced as three syllables, stressing that this grace takes us beyond matter; a love that sweeps us from earth to heaven. And so she ends by saying that if God wills it — if God gives the grace, “I shall but love thee better after death.” How meaningful that is, we may gather from her reasonable expectation when she wrote it that she would not live long, though Italy proved to be good for her and her husband, and she died at the age of 55.
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.
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