“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

Of all the nineteenth century women poets in the English speaking world, Elizabeth Barrett Browning stood in the highest esteem for the audacity and impartiality of her views. The poem, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”, comprise the forty third of the forty-four sonnets in the Portuguese syndicate which she wrote in secret in the period between 1806 to 1861. She dedicated this poem to her husband-to-be before they eventually eloped to Florence in 1846 where they got married in secret and settled (Academy of American Poets par 4.) The poem, therefore, expresses the courtship between the persona and her husband. She uses a specific choice of diction, varied styles, precise tone, as well as the use of language that helps in the creation of the mood of the poem; an expression of the love that she had for him. It is, therefore, very evident of what the poem is all about; the true love that a lover has for the beloved.

The poet has used two types of rhyme to achieve the musicality of the poem: internal and end rhyme. The end rhyme helps in the classification of the poem as to whether it has a regular or irregular rhyme scheme. This determines the rhythm of the poem. This poem has a regular rhyme scheme; abba/ abba/ aba/ bab/. In the consideration of the internal rhyme, she has used several styles to facilitate the rhythm. These include alliteration, assonance repetition and consonance, as well. Alliteration is evidenced in the following lines as shown “…….passion-put” (Line 9),”…..but-better” (Line 14), “……love-let” (Line 1). Repetition has also been used successively to, not only create emphasis, but also, to create a rhythm. This is as shown in the following lines, “……I love thee to the depth and breadth and height”, (Line 2), “……I love thee”, as repeated in several lines throughout the poem. All these, put together, have helped the poet in the acquisition of the rhythm and musicality of the poem.

The theme of the poem is the love. It asserts that it is not just an earthly dogma, but, an eternal concept that is everlasting even well past the grave; it continues even after death, “Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose….I shall but love thee better after death” (lines 13, and 14) She does not express how or why she loves, but, shows the way she loves; “I love thee purely…..freely.”(Lines 7 and 8). The poem is set in two parts, with the initial eight line being octave, and the other six lines – sestet. The theme is well put forward within the octave; in reading the lines, the audience is prepared to meditate on the depth of the love that the persona has for a loved one. It tries to draw the audiences’ attention to the key theme of the poem, which is love, by setting them into an in-depth analysis of the level of love, “How do I love thee? Let me….” (Line 1). The use of the rhetorical question sets them into thinking, thus creating an interactive environment; active audience. The last six lines try to summarize the extent of the love the persona has for a loved one; that love that transcends the earthly life. “…..and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death”. Therefore, the poet has clearly brought out her subject matter by coining several words artistically to help order the audience into her worlds.

In the success of any work of literature, the structure and diction play a very important role. Elizabeth Barrett uses phrases and words connotatively, like “…… to the depth and breadth and height.”(Lines 2 and 3), to imply the vastness and immeasurability of the love, “….by sun and candle-light.” (Line 6), to mean by day or night. These phrases, for example, may be understood even if it were denotatively set. However, their real meaning comes upon a deeper insight into the statement. She uses the first person singular to address the audience, which has aided in the facilitating of the emotion that she intended to create. This makes it sound and feel so emotive.

Through the use of enumeration, tone, parallelism and anticlimax, Elizabeth has managed to create a mood as well as managed to create an emphasis on the theme of the poem.”…..to the depth and breadth and height…” (Line 2). This giving of a list within the line aids in the creation of an emphasis that further leads to the setting in of a very distinct mood. The poem has a somber tone, as she even mentions that she is ready to love even after her death, (lines 13 and 14), “…..In my old grief’s, and with my childhood’s faith, (line 10). This tone further aids in the determination of the mood. The audience feels so captured by such use of words and the statements. They are set to put themselves in the persona’s shoes; they will surely feel how earnest the persona loves the beloved. Therefore, from these styles, the audience is set into a very sombre mood, and feel so subdued. The poet, therefore, has successfully created a solemn mood through that. The pitch of the poem rises incessantly up to the second last line, “…..tears, of all my life!”(Line 13): followed by a sudden fall in the pitch when it is just about to get to the climax, “…..and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” (Lines 13 and 14). Such a sudden fall in the tone helps in the maintenance of the composure that had developed within the audience before any outburst of emotions could take over. The mood of the poem is, therefore, successfully retained.

The poet has also employed intensive use of imagery; both metaphor and simile in the explanation of the extent of the love for a loved one. “…..as men strive for Right” and, “…..as they turn from Praise.” Metaphor has been used in the following lines; “….with a passion put to use”, “…..with my childhood’s faith” These help in bringing out the measure of romanticism that exists between the persona and the partner, as clearly depicted in the main theme of the poem.

The poet has incorporated the use of much symbolism. This is as evidenced in the following phrases, “….to the depth and breadth and height/ my soul can reach.” The first section of the statement mentions something to do with volume, and the second mentions the soul. Well, we know that the soul is abstract and therefore infinite. The love is compared to the volume, which in this case, is infinite. Therefore, this suggests the infinity of the love that the persona has for a loved one. “…..freely, as men strive for Right” (Line 7), this taken literally, does not make sense: we live in a society of capitalism where all fight for greater personal gain. The means is of the least consideration when it comes to the making of the gain to any normal man, yet, the persona compares her undoubted love to be as free as this. This, therefore, suggests how far the love transcends the normal love, just like the gain made by not just a mere normal man.

Elizabeth Barrett has used her immeasurable skills to raise a lot of controversies in the readers’ minds on whether the poem is actually expressing an existent love or the hatred that the persona has for the ‘loved one’. This has been facilitated through various styles such as imagery, symbolism, parallelism and even irony as seen in the preceding discussion. The audience’s imagination is, in the end, evoked into imagining whether the persona really expresses her love or lack of it thereof. All these styles and the creativity of the poet combine in the making of this work one of the most incredible pieces of literary art.

Work Cited

Academy of American Poets, Victorian Web: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Information on Browning’s Work and the Victorian era:http:/www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/152

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