Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How Do I Love Thee?

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 every day'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 with a 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. 
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” illustrates an undying love that lasts for the ages. Formatted in a Petrarchan Iambic Pentameter form, the poem follows the traditional expectations of a Petrarchan sonnet. Made famous by the Italian poet, Petrarch, the Petrarchan sonnet which gained immense popularity in the Romanicism period often deals with the subject of love. Like the classic Petrarchan sonnet, Browning reveals that her love for her husband is equally timeless. Thus, she ends the sonnet with the line, “I shall but love thee better after death” reiterating the point that this love is not just a passing feeling but one that will last for eternity, even after death. Browning attempts to do the impossible: counting exactly how many different ways she loves her husband. She uses many comparisons to do this, particularly emphasizing how her love reflects the nature of man. “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;/ I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise” in lines 7-8 focuses on the nature of man and his existence throughout the ages. By doing so, Browning is making a statement that her love is instinctual, ever-lasting, and predestined as man’s existence has been. She loves “with a passion put to use/ in my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.” (lines 9-10) which is a reference to the innocence and unhindered passion that only exists in childhood. She trusts her lover with blind faith-“my childhood’s faith” (line 10). A child’s faith is undying just as her loyalty to her lover is. Line 11, in which Browning states, “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose” conveys that this love is untainted by her past experiences. Like the childhood faith, the experience that comes with growing older often leads to disappointments and let downs. Browning hints that she too has been disappointed, betrayed, and hurt by others that she has loved in the past by including this line. However, she is not bitter about the experience. Instead she seems to have turned around those unpleasant experiences, putting them to good use as a way to compare how she feels about her lover now. So instead of using malicious language or cool indifference to reference the others that have caused her to lose her love in the first place, she calls them “lost saints”. These “lost saints” can be an allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost or the biblical story of how Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. Like Adam and Eve before their fall, the ones that she had loved seemed to be harmless and possibly “saint-like”. However, after the experience that opened up her eyes to betrayal, hurt, and disappointment, their saint-like image was lost. So although they are the same people, with the acquirement of this new knowledge and experience with love that leads to Browning’s lost love, these “saints” are metaphorically banned from Browning’s own Garden of Eden. Finally, as a bold conclusion, Browning ends her sonnet by pledging to give her life for this love if God so chooses because her lover is “smiles, tears, of all” her life (line13). 

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