“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.