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.
(The entire section is 491 words.)