All the forty-four poems in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet sequence Sonnets from the Portuguese were written during the period of courtship that preceded her marriage to Robert Browning. As a whole, Sonnets from the Portuguese is considered one of the finest poetic sequences in literature. It is Sonnet 43, however, often titled “How do I love thee?” from its memorable first words, which is the best-known of the collection; indeed, it is one of the most-quoted love poems in English literature.
Sonnet 43 is an Italian sonnet, a fourteen-line iambic pentameter poem written in a specific rhyme scheme. The first line of the poem asks a question; the other thirteen lines answer it. The question is simply, “How do I love thee?” The answer involves seven different aspects of love, all of which are part of Elizabeth’s feeling for Robert, and the projection of an eighth, eternal love in the future.
As the poem proceeds, each variation on the theme of love is introduced with the words “I love thee.” In the octave (the first eight lines), the poem speaks of the spiritual side of her love, which aspires toward God; then she mentions its earthly aspect, the love that enriches daily life. More briefly, she mentions the fact that her love is given freely, almost as if it were prompted by the conscience, and that it is pure, in other words, selfless, like the action of a humble man unwilling to accept praise.
In the sestet (the final six lines), the poet looks at her love in three more ways. First, she explains that this love makes use of the emotions once spent on grief or on religious faith. From this mention of faith, she proceeds to a slightly different idea: that in loving Browning, she has rediscovered a love like that she once felt for the saints of religion. Finally, she explains that her love is all-encompassing, involving her entire life, including moments of unhappiness as well as happiness; that her love is as much a part of her as breathing, that is, the very act of living. In conclusion, the poet asserts that, God willing, this love can even transcend death and continue in the next world.
In most sonnets, there are eight or twelve lines stating a question, a conflict, a problem, or a possibility. In the final six lines, or sometimes in a final couplet, the question is answered, the conflict resolved, the problem solved, or the possibility denied or extended in some way. This sonnet is unusual in that the question is stated in the first line, and the rest of the poem is made up simply of various answers to that question. Even the last line and a half, which could be said to provide some kind of resolution, is really only another answer to the original question, which might be restated as “What are the various ways in which love affects the lover?”
It is a mark of Barrett Browning’s skill that the repetition of the phrase “I love thee”—nine times in a poem only fourteen lines long—simply serves to make the poem more effective. The phrase is first used in the question; then, when the poet sets out to “count the ways,” she keeps score by introducing each new idea with exactly the same words. Certainly the repeated phrase is more than a marker; it emphasizes the fact she is stating—that indeed she loves the man to whom the poem is addressed. The repetition is also realistic; at least in the early stages of the emotion, most people who are in love have a tendency to reiterate the declaration frequently. The fact that the poem is structured around the repetition of the phrase “I love thee” is, therefore, one source of its effectiveness.
In addition to carefully crafted phrases, most poems as popular as this sonnet have striking images. One thinks of the description of the snow, even the sound of the horse’s bells, in Robert Frost’s...
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