"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways" is one of the most famous love poems in the English language. Because it's so famous, many readers mistakenly attribute the poem to that master sonneteer, William Shakespeare. However, "How do I love thee?" was written centuries after Shakespeare – in fact, it's only been around for a little over 150 years. Prominent Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning first published the poem in 1850.
The poem was part of a sonnet sequence called Sonnets from the Portuguese. The title of the sequence is intentionally misleading; Barrett Browning implied to her readers that these were sonnets originally written by someone else in Portuguese and that she had translated them, whereas in reality they were her own original compositions in English. ("My little Portuguese" was actually an affectionate nickname that Elizabeth's husband used for her in private.) The sequence is comprised of 44 sonnets, with "How do I love thee?" appearing in the striking position of number 43, or second-to-last, making it an important part of the climax.
Most critics agree that Barrett Browning wrote the sonnets, not as an abstract literary exercise, but as a personal declaration of love to her husband, Robert Browning (who was also an important Victorian poet). Perhaps the intimate origin of the sonnets is what led Barrett Browning to create an imaginary foreign origin for them. But whatever the original motives behind their composition and presentation, many of the sonnets immediately became famous, establishing Barrett Browning as an important poet through the 19th and 20th centuries. Phrases from Barrett Browning's sonnets, especially "How do I love thee?," have entered everyday conversation, becoming standard figures of speech even for people who have never read her poetry.
We'll be honest here: sometimes it can be hard to care about a sonnet, especially a really abstract one like this that isn't necessarily about specific people, places, or things. But there are a few reasons you should care about this poem. One of them is the same reason that you should care about shoelaces, cell phone towers, the President of the United States, and marshmallows: they're important parts of our world, pretty much everyone knows about them, and they have a major impact on things around you. OK, maybe marshmallows don't have too major an impact (unless you're watching Ghostbusters), but you see what we mean. Both this poem itself – "How do I love thee?" – and its subject, love, are important parts of the world, stuff everybody else knows about, and you should probably know about it, too.
There's a more specific reason you should care about this poem, too. If you've ever had a crush on someone, fallen head-over-heels for a girl, or felt a warm fuzzy affection for a guy, then you've probably wondered how exactly this whole "love" thing works. After all, we all know that people fall in love and out of love, but how does it work while you're in it? What kinds of love are there, and how and when do they happen? And what if you love someone in many different, conflicting ways? These are eternal human questions, and they're the questions Barrett Browning asks – and tries to answer – with this sonnet.