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How do I love thee? -- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Guest poem submitted by Anustup Datta
(Poem #269) 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 candle-light.
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.
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This poem was recently chosen the greatest love poem of all time in a large
readers' poll - not surprisingly, it has found place in nearly all large
anthologies. It formed part of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnets from
the Portuguese", written in her Italian days at the Casa Guidi. It is addressed
to her husband, who used to call her 'My little Portuguese" as she was dark. I
was recently reminded of this poem while watching a re-run of 'The Barretts of
Wimpole Street' with Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson in the lead - marvellous
performances in a marvellous play.

I think this is the epitome of the love poem - the heart pours out its emotions
in every word. I love the way in which the simple words echo when one reads it
aloud, and lines 9-12 are simply sublime. Also, I feel that the conventional
sonnet form has an intrinsic power that lends itself to intense outbursts of
emotion - for instance, Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
or Keats' "On first looking into Chapman's Homer". But notice how here the form
is subservient to the emotion - one is actually surprised to note how
effortlessly the scansion moves. All in all, a simply marvellous poem.


[Minstrels Links]

Both the othe sonnets mentioned have been covered on this list. 'On First
Looking into Chapman's Homer' is at poem #12, while
'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day' (Sonnet XVIII) is at poem #71.


Elizabeth Barrett, an English poet of the Romantic Movement, was born in 1806 at
Coxhoe Hall, Durham, England. The oldest of twelve children, Elizabeth was the
first in her family born in England in over two hundred years. For centuries,
the Barrett family, who were part Creole, had lived in Jamaica, where they owned
sugar plantations and relied on slave labor. Elizabeth's father, Edward Barrett
Moulton Barrett, chose to raise his family in England, while his fortune grew in
Jamaica. Educated at home, Elizabeth apparently had read passages from Paradise
Lost and a number of Shakespearean plays, among other great works, before the
age of ten. By her twelfth year she had written her first "epic" poem, which
consisted of four books of rhyming couplets. Two years later, Elizabeth
developed a lung ailment that plagued her for the rest of her life. Doctors
began treating her with morphine, which she would take until her death. While
saddling a pony when she was fifteen, Elizabeth also suffered a spinal injury.
Despite her ailments, her education continued to flourish. Throughout her
teenage years, Elizabeth taught herself Hebrew so that she could read the Old
Testament; her interests later turned to Greek studies. Accompanying her
appetite for the classics was a passionate enthusiasm for her Christian faith.
She became active in the Bible and Missionary Societies of her church.

In 1826 Elizabeth anonymously published her collection An Essay on Mind and
Other Poems. Two years later, her mother passed away. The slow abolition of
slavery in England and mismanagement of the plantations depleted the Barrett's
income, and in 1832, Elizabeth's father sold his rural estate at a public
auction. He moved his family to a coastal town and rented cottages for the next
three years, before settling permanently in London. While living on the sea
coast, Elizabeth published her translation of Prometheus Bound (1833), by the
Greek dramatist Aeschylus.

Gaining notoriety for her work in the 1830's, Elizabeth continued to live in her
father's London house under his tyrannical rule. He began sending Elizabeth's
younger siblings to Jamaica to help with the family's estates. Elizabeth
bitterly opposed slavery and did not want her siblings sent away. During this
time, she wrote The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), expressing Christian
sentiments in the form of classical Greek tragedy. Due to her weakening
disposition she was forced to spend a year at the sea of Torquay accompanied by
her brother Edward, whom she referred to as "Bro." He drowned later that year
while sailing at Torquay and Elizabeth returned home emotionally broken,
becoming an invalid and a recluse. She spent the next five years in her bedroom
at her father's home. She continued writing, however, and in 1844 produced a
collection entitled simply Poems. This volume gained the attention of poet
Robert Browning, whose work Elizabeth had praised in one of her poems, and he
wrote her a letter.

Elizabeth and Robert, who was six years her junior, exchanged 574 letters over
the next twenty months. Immortalized in 1930 in the play The Barretts of Wimpole
Street, by Rudolf Besier (1878-1942), their romance was bitterly opposed by her
father, who did not want any of his children to marry. In 1846, the couple
eloped and settled in Florence, Italy, where Elizabeth's health improved and she
bore a son, Robert Wideman Browning. Her father never spoke to her again.
Elizabeth's Sonnets from the Portuguese, dedicated to her husband and written in
secret before her marriage, was published in 1850. Critics generally consider
the Sonnets--one of the most widely known collections of love lyrics in
English--to be her best work. Admirers have compared her imagery to Shakespeare
and her use of the Italian form to Petrarch.

Political and social themes embody Elizabeth's later work. She expressed her
intense sympathy for the struggle for the unification of Italy in Casa Guidi
Windows (1848-51) and Poems Before Congress (1860). In 1857 Browning published
her verse novel Aurora Leigh, which portrays male domination of a woman. In her
poetry she also addressed the oppression of the Italians by the Austrians, the
child labor mines and mills of England, and slavery, among other social
injustices. Although this decreased her popularity, Elizabeth was heard and
recognized around Europe.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence on June 29, 1861.

68 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Bonnie Hansen said...

I found this page on the web and I am trying to help my daughter do her homework and I am not good with poetry. I have looked all over the web for a translation on this and couldn't find one. Is there a place on the internet that you know of that a person can go and get translation into today's language so that a person can understand the meaning of poems? She is in middle school and has 4 poems due by Monday and most of them I don't understand. Thanks

Danisilas said...

i think you'll find it was John Geilgud not Laurence Olivier in the Barretts
of wimpole st.


Wallywhizbang said...

I recently read this in front of an audience and dedicated it to my wife
(who was very surprised! Many of the audience commented on how beautiful the
poem was and how touching was the dedication.

Melanie said...

Analysing part of EAC4U class.
This poem is very inspiring in the way that it is genuine. It beholds no contempt. Browning explore the many ways on how to love Thee. Thee, become in this poem an affectionate term, used to deisgnate something higher, aka, a love so powerful. It is a mataphor that demonstrate how universal and deep her love is for her husband, Many would concentrate on finding the right one to love, and sometimes pas shim as they search, but not her, she has found him, and loves him freely and all controversies. It is not artifical love, but as she words it, it is passion put to use. But, then as often it happens in our lives, she loves Thee unconditionally, and may not receive it in return, she seesm to lose the love. And as in reality, she is no longer pure, the love is no longer saint and genuine. then, simply she leaves it in god's hands. Maybe she will love better after her death, since it will not be corrupted and shall be eternal.

Steve Hamer said...

I was shocked to see one of the most fundamental points of this sonnet
removed. In the original, the words; "being", "grace", "right" and "praise"
all had capital letters. It was deliberately written like this by her, to
give these words and authority and power, much like the capital on the word
"God" later. The removal of these in most modern versions available gives
the poem less power, and I feel less of her soul.

Merrelley Gillie said...

This is one of the most supreme love poems ever written. I write a newsletter and will include it as part of the content. Love like that only minimally exists in this modern world. Perhaps she writes of what love really is. I absolutely love this poem. She is almost equivalent to Shakespeare on her expression of love. This is one of my favorite poems. Thank you for publishing it.


Antonytomdrew said...

I have spent years convinced, and insisting, that this poem was written by
Shakespeare. God save the world from pedants and "experts" like me! It's
lovely isn't it? Tony D.

maria stephens said...

Love is Eternal ~ Beautiful poem,...My Mother taught me this when I was a child ~ thankyou!

Charlar56 said...

As I passed Whimpole Street last year, I was reminded of the deep love she
had for her husband and her precious 'Flush'. And if the story be true, the
lost love of a father who was so possessive.
Charlotte Brokaw Thomas

Terry Heatherly said...

We all lose our childhood's faith as we become disillusioned with those we have looked up to (lost Saints); and we have spent much of our passion in griefs. To find a love that restores faith to its child-like acceptance and turns our passion from grief to love is what completes us.

I can only imagine the griefs she had endured in her life. The kind of love she found was healing - it was true love. Every single word of this poem sings of it. Without saying it, the reader realizes that mere words cannot express the fullness of it - and in realizing this, understands what she is saying.

It is so pure. Volumes are said between the lines. If you have experienced this kind of love you are thankful for it. If you have not experienced it, you long for it because through her words you can see it so clearly.

I guess that is why it is the greatest love poem ever written. Simply beautiful


Albatross said...

Abrham Lincoln was three years old when Robert Browning was born (1812.
He was 33 years old when he wrote this poem - that was in 1845.
That was the year my grandfather was born.

Anonymous said...

This poem I would recite on my wedding day.It is to die for.

Anonymous said...

whaaa.ganda ng poem na to love it kakainspire

Anonymous said...

ahm ang keso naman ng poem na to........
mramaing naiinspire.........sana maraming poem na gnito whaaaa. hahaha sana nga............

Anonymous said...

tujh bin mano is jg me sb ho kr bhi adhura hai aa jao na MAA sub lagta suna suna hai.....

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite poem ever.. if only someone would recites this poem for me with every word meaning it no lesser... Alas such love seem trapped in poems now-a-days.

Marie H. said...

On June 26th, 1989 I married a man who loved me this way. On June 26th, 2014 I will recite this to him. (our 25th wedding anniversrary, God willing. Thank you for publishing it.

Anonymous said...

ohver , to the highest ang ganda ng pagkakasulat. napaiyak ako.....................

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Anonymous said...

I asked my twin sister to read this sonnet at my wedding in May 1999--I chose it for my husband, and he did not know I had asked her to read it! Today I have suggested (with much joy at her happiness!!)) that I read it for my twin sister at her wedding this coming June 25th. (2011). It never ceases to bring tears to my eyes!

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Kamagra said...

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Anonymous said...

The poem is shit

Anonymous said...

thnx god tas naku mag search hehek ganda ng meaning nito.. sana maganda kalabasan ng report ko heha gud luck ran badn...hehe


Anonymous said...

wew paano ung paraphrase nito !! bad3p solid ahahah !! homework kc namin eh !! ako nga pla si ART ADRIAN GARCIA !!

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