Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How Do I Love Thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

·         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.

Some thoughts…

on this poem - Often it is male poets who pour out their hearts to their beloved. Here, it’s a woman making her declaration of love. What appeals to me most about this poem is the passionate ardor of its devotion – basically the poet is saying that her love is the best, the purest, the truest that she can offer to her adored. 

on a personal note – Maybe it’s human nature to ‘count the ways’, to try and quantify the extent and depth of our love. Parents may have fond memories of reading Sam McBratney’s wonderful ‘Guess How Much I Love You’ to their child. In it, a father bunny and his little one engage in a playful competition of who loves the other more. My then five-year old son and I tried something similar. I lost the game when he dealt his trump card – “I love you as big as God.”

on the Poet – Elizabeth Barrett was born into a privileged family in England in 1806. Brilliant from her early years, she was virtually an autodidact, with an interest in both Classical Literature and metaphysics. A reversal of family fortune and various personal losses led her to a reclusive life that was brought to a startling end when she met Robert Browning, a fellow poet.

Theirs was a literary courtship. He first wrote to tell her that he was an admirer of her writing. That feeling changed to one of a more personal nature when they met. Elizabeth, who was six years older than Browning and considerably frail in health, hesitated over the relationship. This particular poem is from “Sonnets from the Portugese”, which were written over the period of their wooing. 

Not to be deterred by her father’s disapproval (he made a habit of disinheriting any offspring who dared to marry), the two eloped to Italy, where they lived for the next fifteen years, and where their son was born. Elizabeth died in 1861 in Robert Browning’s arms.

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