Themes and Meanings

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As a complete sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese describes the development of Elizabeth Barrett’s love for Robert Browning. As the forty-third poem in a sequence of forty-four, “How do I love thee?” describes a fully realized love. Earlier poems often had mentioned the past, when the poet did not dream that such happiness would ever be hers. In this poem, she defines her present happiness by explaining how her love incorporates and transcends her past spiritual and emotional experiences.

For example, Barrett Browning speaks of her love as being the striving of her soul for the divine, for the purposes of life and for that “Grace” that is the gift of God. Similarly, the seventh and eighth lines suggest that her love is like the spiritual quests for morality (“Right”) and for humility (“Praise”). Her love has brought her back to the kind of innocent faith she knew in her childhood, but seemingly had lost. All these descriptions indicate that the kind of love Elizabeth now feels for Robert is akin to the love that enables a human being to love God and to experience God’s love in return.

Earlier poems in the sequence had referred to the unhappiness and despair of the years before Elizabeth met Robert. In this sonnet, the poet triumphantly announces that her love has redeemed those years. For example, the capacity for intensity that she developed in past sorrows now can be utilized, instead, in the joy of her love. Similarly, the capacity for belief that she developed in her youth now can be exercised in the complete faith that provides the security of love.

Even though in Sonnet 43 many references stress the spiritual, the poet also makes it clear that the relationship is solidly based on earthly needs. In the temporal world, day alternates with night (“sun and candlelight”), happiness with unhappiness (“Smiles, tears”). Barrett Browning does not expect a heaven on Earth; all she needs is the presence of the beloved during the changes that define life in this world. Finally, she emphasizes her awareness of the final change: that from life to death. In the final lines, the heavenly and the earthly, the spiritual and the temporal are united. The rhyme words are significant. With the help of God, the lovers will proceed together from a last “breath” into a new life and an even more devoted love “after death.”

Barrett Browning’s description of a love that thus encompasses past, present, and future has appealed to both men and women for almost a century and a half. Recent feminist critics have pointed out another significance of the sequence, and especially of the later poems within it, such as this. From the Renaissance on, sonnets have been used by men for the expression of their own emotions, first for love-complaints and later for expressions of friendship, anger, and religious uncertainties. In Sonnets from the Portuguese, a woman poet expressed her love for a man in her own unmistakably feminine voice. Sonnet 43 focuses on Elizabeth, not on Robert; it is the revelation of a woman’s own heart and soul, fortunately inspired by a man who was worthy of her.

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