How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43) by: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806 – 1861
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.
Perhaps one of the most “lovely” – pardon the pun, poems of all time. Every Valentine’s Day, it seems to be the one that is quoted most by lovers all over the world, well, at least the first two lines: “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways…”
The beautiful sentiment and meaning of the sonnet all but lost in comedic sketches and cheesy Hallmark cards we laugh at while shopping at the dollar store. You know what I’m talking about. Often times the husband or wife depicted in the sketch or card will actually count the ways:
“How do I love you, let me count the ways”:
ONE. I love you when you take the garbage out… (open the card) and I’ll love you even more if I don’t have to nag you to do it every time!
TWO. I love you when you cook me dinner…(open the card) and I’ll love you even if it results in a trip to the hospital for food poisoning.
THREE. I love you when I ask if I look fat in that dress, when I know I do but you say that I don’t…
We have all but ruined Browning’s poem!
Like the sweet words of sentiment my son wrote to me one Valentine’s Day when he was five:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet,
And I am too.
(He didn’t quite understand the concept…)
Or how about this one, written by a close friend of mine?:
Roses are red,
Violets are great,
Just remember girdles
I know it’s often said, “It’s the thought that counts.” Not in this case.
But let’s get back to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Born in 1806, in Durham, England, she was the oldest of twelve children. For centuries, the Barrett family lived in Jamaica, where they owned sugar plantations and relied on slave labour. Elizabeth’s father, Edward chose to raise his family in England, while his fortune grew in Jamaica. Elizabeth was well-educated at home and by the time she was twelve was already writing poetry inspired by John Milton’s epic poem, “Paradise Lost” and her love of Shakespeare. Elizabeth was always battling poor health but that did not detour her from teaching herself Hebrew in her teen years so she could read the Old Testament; and later her interests turned to Greek studies. Along with her appetite for classic literature, was a passionate enthusiasm for her Christian faith. She became active in the Bible and Missionary Societies of her church.
A series of misfortunes hit the Barrett family in the 1830’s, where they all but lost their fortune due to the growing abolitionist movement which Elizabeth endorsed, much to her father’s dismay. Her father sent his other children to work on the plantation but Elizabeth, due to poor health, stayed home with her father and continued to write a collection of poems which eventually garnered attention in 1844 from the poet, Robert Browning. Elizabeth had praised him in one of her poems, and he in response wrote her a letter. Elizabeth and Robert (6 years her junior) exchanged 574 letters over the next twenty months, but 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. Her father never spoke to her again. Elizabeth regained her health and had a son and she published a collection of sonnets in 1850 that she had written in secret before her marriage, including “How Do I Love Thee” that was dedicated to her husband.
Why am I sharing this?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning could not have penned a more perfect love letter to her husband. It has been analyzed and re-analyzed by English Literature scholars who have tried, and in my opinion, failed to adequately define and interpret the amazing love she was purposefully trying to express to her husband through this one poem.
I think, and this is just my own opinion, of course, most of the scholars just don’t “get” the poem, because they do not fully grasp the Christian concept of love she has woven intricately throughout her poem.
Indulge me for a moment:
“How do I love thee, let me count the ways.”
There are actually 6 ways in the Bible to count the ways of love. Being a Hebrew and Greek scholar, Barrett would have known that.
In the Old Testament there are two Hebrew words that are translated into English as “love”:
“Ahab” – is human love for another, including family, friends, spouses and God. Ahab – is the “love” expressed in the great commandment in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
And in Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
The second Hebrew word, “hesed” is the unbreakable bond that God initiates with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants: “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3
It is not conditional love, “If you do this, then I will do that.” There are no “ifs” in these promises of God. There are no time limits; no cancellation clauses. This is a covenant bond between God and Abraham and their descendants defined in the story of Moses, the escape from slavery in Egypt and the giving of the Ten Commandments. And so, while hesed has the feelings of love, kindness, mercy, and affection it is defined primarily by the unconditional, steadfast, loyal, faithfulness, and trustworthiness of God. Hesed continues even when feelings change. God’s anger and punishment is ALWAYS expressed within the constraint of this unbreakable covenant bond, and is ALWAYS for the purpose of restoring the mutuality of that bond.
Further qualities that are also embedded in hesed are righteousness and justice; harmony and well-being. Notice that in the verse quoted, in Genesis 12, God says, “I will bless you so that you will be a blessing.” So, while God’s covenant bond is unbreakable and unconditional, it is not an “anything goes” relationship. It is a bond that has a purpose: so that you will be a blessing. And the nature of this blessing is justice: right relationships with family, foreigners, slaves, the land, animals, etc., etc.; and harmony and well-being for all.
In the New Testament there are four Greek words that are translated into English as “love”:
The word, charitas, is often translated as “charity,” and it connotes feelings of generosity, gratitude, favour, pleasing others, and finding beauty and delight in service to others. It is selfless love. 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13 speaks about this kind of love. You may note too, it is the scripture most often quoted at weddings, when the Pastor is trying to tell young newlyweds, from this day forward, it’s NOT all about you as individuals anymore. It’s that balanced partnership of constantly striving to love your spouse more than yourself! (Am I right, or am I right? 🙂 )
The Greek word, eros, is named after the Greek god of love. His Roman counterpart was Cupid (meaning desire). This “love” is associated with sexual desire, romance and what we most often equate with Valentine’s Day. Solomon’s Song of Songs is a good example of this kind of love.
Phileo, is commonly associated with “brotherly love,” and is most often exhibited in a close friendship. Best friends will display this generous and affectionate love for each other as each seeks to make the other happy. Since phileo love involves feelings of warmth and affection toward another person, we do not have phileo love toward our enemies. However, God commands us to have love toward everyone. This includes those whose personalities clash with ours, those who hurt us and treat us badly, and even those who are hostile toward our faith.
Luke 6:28 “bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Matthew 5:44 “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
That type of love is Agape love. It is God’s unconditional, unbreakable bond of love; kindness, and mercy so that we might live together with righteousness, justice, harmony and well-being. When Jesus quotes the Great Commandment from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, it is Agape love He is referring to. It is the most powerful, noblest type of love. It is sacrificial love. Agape love is more than a feeling – it is an act of the will. This is the love that God has for His people and prompted the sacrifice of His only Son, Jesus, for our sins. Jesus was Agape love personified.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
Agape is used to describe the love that is of and from God, Whose very Nature is love itself: “God is love” (1 John 4:8) God does not merely love; HE IS LOVE itself. Everything God does flows from His love.
Understanding that, let’s read Elizabeth Browning’s second line of her poem again:
“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height” – Stop there.
Have you heard of that kind of love?
Ephesians 3:14-19, Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Immediately a Worship song comes to mind: “How deep the Father’s Love for us, How vast beyond all measure, that He should give His only Son to make a wretch his treasure.”
We cannot fathom that kind of love, can we?
That is Agape love and although we’re called as Christians to have that kind of love for our spouses, friends, family and enemies, Agape love does not come naturally to us. Because of our fallen nature, we are incapable of producing such a love. If we are to love as God loves – with agape love – we can only do so if we tap into its very Source. This is the love that “has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” when we became His children (Romans 5:5). “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). It is because of God’s love toward us, we are able to love one another.
In Elizabeth’s love poem to her husband, she endeavors to list the many ways in which she loves Robert. She loves him to the length and breadth and height her soul can reach and also on the level of every day’s quiet need. She loves him purely and passionately. She loves him as she once did her saints, and with the smiles and tears of her whole life. And if God lets her, she will love him more after death than she does while she is living.
“I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.”
God’s power over the body and soul in death seems to be the only thing that Browning acknowledges is stronger than the love she has for her husband.
Such beautiful sentiments to ponder upon for Valentine’s Day, but even Browning’s sonnets fall short of expressing the kind of love we can only experience by being in a personal, intimate relationship with God the Father.
There may be many ways of conveying Love, but Jesus, WHO is LOVE embodied, is the ONLY PERFECT, manifested expression of Love to us,…
And it is In His Word, He writes the perfect Love Letter to us:
Thank you, Lynn, for your well-researched and beautifully written article on love with its various depths and meanings–from romantic love to agape love and everything in between. I hadn’t viewed this video, The Father’s Love Letter, for a while, so this also touched me deeply.