"How Do I Love Thee?" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning was written in 1845 while she was being courted by the English poet, Robert Browning. The poem is also titled Sonnet XLIII from Sonnets From the Portuguese.
Elizabeth Barrett was born in Durham England in 1806, the first daughter of affluent parents who owned sugar plantations in Jamaica. She was home-schooled and read voraciously in history, philosophy and literature. Young Elizabeth learned Hebrew in order to read original Bible texts and Greek in order to read original Greek drama and philosophy. She began writing poems when she was 12 years old, though she did not publish her first collection for another twenty years.
Elizabeth Barrett developed a serious respiratory ailment by age 15 and a horse riding accident shortly thereafter left her with a serious spinal injury. These two health problems remained with her all of her life.
In 1828 her mother died and four years later the family business faltered and her father sold the Durham estate and moved the family to a coastal town. He was stern, protective, and even tyrannical and forbid any of his children to marry. In 1833 Elizabeth published her first work, a translation of Prometheus Bound by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus.
A few years later the family moved to London. Her father began sending Elizabeth's younger brothers and sisters to Jamaica to help with the family business. Elizabeth was distressed because she openly opposed slavery in Jamaica and on the family plantations and because she did not want her siblings sent away.
In 1838 Elizabeth Barrett wrote and published The Seraphim and Other Poems. The collection took the form of a classical Greek tragedy and expressed her deep Christian sentiments.
Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth's poor health prompted her to move to Italy, accompanied by her dear brother Edward, whom she referred to as "Bro." Unfortunately he drowned a year later in a sailing accident and Elizabeth retuned to London, seriously ill, emotionally broken, and hopelessly grief-stricken. She became reclusive for the next five years, confining herself to her bedroom.
She continued to write poetry, however, and published a collection in 1844 simply titled, Poems. It was also published in the United States with an introduction by Edgar Allan Poe. In one of the poems she praised one of the works of Robert Browning, which gained his attention. He wrote back to her, expressing his admiration for Poems.
Over the next twenty months Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning exchanged 574 letters. An admiration, respect, and love for each other grew and flourished. In 1845 Robert Browning sent Elizabeth a telegram which read, "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett. I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart - and I love you too." A few months later the two met and fell in love.
Inspired by her love for Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett wrote the 44 love poems which were collected in Sonnets From the Portuguese and which were eventually published in 1850. Her growing love for Robert and her ability to express her emotions in the sonnets and love poems allowed Elizabeth to escape from the oppression of her father and the depression of her recluse.
Her father strongly opposed the relationship so she kept her love affair a secret as long as possible. The couple eloped in 1846 and her father never forgave her or spoke to her thereafter.
Move to Italy
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert, went to Pisa, Italy and soon settled in Florence where she spent the rest of her life, with occasional visits to London. Soon Elizabeth's health improved enough to be able to give birth to the couple's only child, Robert.
In 1850 she published Sonnets From the Portuguese. Some have speculated that the title was chosen to hide the personal nature of the sonnets and to imply that the collection was a translation of earlier works. However, Robert's pet name for Elizabeth was "my little Portuguese," a reflection on Elizabeth's darker, mediterranean complexion, possibly inherited from the family's Jamaican ties.
While living in Florence, Elizabeth Barrett Browning published 3 more considerable works. She addressed Italian political topics and some other unpopular subjects, such as slavery, child labor, male domination, and a woman's right to intellectual freedom. Though her popularity decreased as a result of these choices, she was read and heard and recognized throughout Europe. She died in Florence in 1861.
The Poem, "How Do I Love Thee?"
Sonnet XLIII, "How Do I Love Thee?" is probably Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most popular love poem. It is heartfelt, romantic, loving, elegant, and simple. It is also quite memorable.
The love poem starts with the question, "How Do I Love Thee?" and proceeds to count the ways. Her Christian spirituality testifies that she loves Robert "to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach." She then professes seven more ways that she loves Robert. Her "passion put to use in my old griefs" refers to the depth of her former despair. The love that "I seemed to lose with my lost saints" refers to the lost loves of her mother and her brother.
The love poem ends with the declaration that time and death will not diminish her love for Robert because "if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death."
How Do I Love Thee
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 everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
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.
read this poet's poems
Born in 1806 at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, England, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an English poet of the Romantic Movement. The oldest of twelve children, Elizabeth was the first in her family born in England in over two hundred years. For centuries, the Barrett family, who were part Creole, had lived in Jamaica, where they owned sugar plantations and relied on slave labor. Elizabeth's father, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, chose to raise his family in England, while his fortune grew in Jamaica. Educated at home, Elizabeth apparently had read passages from Paradise Lost and a number of Shakespearean plays, among other great works, before the age of ten. By her twelfth year, she had written her first "epic" poem, which consisted of four books of rhyming couplets. Two years later, 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. Accompanying her appetite for the classics was a passionate enthusiasm for her Christian faith. She became active in the Bible and Missionary Societies of her church.
In 1826, Elizabeth anonymously published her collection An Essay on Mind and Other Poems. Two years later, her mother passed away. The slow abolition of slavery in England and mismanagement of the plantations depleted the Barretts's income, and in 1832, Elizabeth's father sold his rural estate at a public auction. He moved his family to a coastal town and rented cottages for the next three years, before settling permanently in London. While living on the sea coast, Elizabeth published her translation of Prometheus Bound (1833), by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus.
Gaining attention for her work in the 1830s, Elizabeth continued to live in her father's London house under his tyrannical rule. He began sending Elizabeth's younger siblings to Jamaica to help with the family's estates. Elizabeth bitterly opposed slavery and did not want her siblings sent away. During this time, she wrote The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), expressing Christian sentiments in the form of classical Greek tragedy. Due to her weakening disposition, 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 Browning returned home emotionally broken, becoming an invalid and a recluse. She spent the next five years in her bedroom at her father's home. She continued writing, however, and in 1844 produced a collection entitled simply 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.
Elizabeth and Robert, who was six years her junior, exchanged 574 letters over the next twenty months. Immortalized in 1930 in the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street, by Rudolf Besier (1878-1942), their romance was bitterly opposed by her father, who did not want any of his children to marry. In 1846, the couple eloped and settled in Florence, Italy, where Elizabeth's health improved and she bore a son, Robert Wideman Browning. 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. Admirers have compared her imagery to Shakespeare and her use of the Italian form to Petrarch.
Political and social themes embody Elizabeth's later work. She expressed her intense sympathy for the struggle for the unification of Italy in Casa Guidi Windows (1848-1851) and Poems Before Congress (1860). In 1857 Browning published her verse novel Aurora Leigh, which portrays male domination of a woman. In her poetry she also addressed the oppression of the Italians by the Austrians, the child labor mines and mills of England, and slavery, among other social injustices. Although this decreased her popularity, Elizabeth was heard and recognized around Europe.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence on June 29, 1861.
The Battle of Marathon: A Poem (1820)
An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826)
Miscellaneous Poems (1833)
The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838)
A Drama of Exile: and other Poems (1845)
Poems: New Edition (1850)
The Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1850)
Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850)
Casa Guidi Windows: A Poem (1851)
Poems: Third Edition (1853)
Two Poems (1854)
Poems: Fourth Edition (1856)
Aurora Leigh (1857)
Napoleon III in Italy, and Other Poems (1860)
Poems before Congress (1860)
Last Poems (1862)
The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1900)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Hitherto Unpublished Poems and Stories (1914)
New Poems by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1914)
"Queen Annelida and False Arcite;" "The Complaint of Annelida to False Arcite," (1841)
A New Spirit of the Age (1844)
"The Daughters of Pandarus" from the Odyssey (1846)
The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets (1863)
Psyche Apocalyptè: A Lyrical Drama (1876)
Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Addressed to Richard Hengist Horne (1877)
The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1897)
The Poet's Enchiridion (1914)
Letters to Robert Browning and Other Correspondents by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1916)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to Her Sister, 1846-1859 (1929)
Letters from Elizabeth Barrett to B. R. Haydon (1939)
Twenty Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett to Hugh Stuart Boyd (1950)
New Letters from Mrs. Browning to Isa Blagden (1951)
The Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford (1954)
Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Hugh Stuart Boyd (1955)
Letters of the Brownings to George Barrett (1958)
Diary by E. B. B.: The Unpublished Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1831-1832 (1969)
The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1845-1846 (1969)
Invisible Friends (1972)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy, 1849-1861 (1973)
Prometheus Bound (1833)