How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. (Sonnet 43)
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
In this sonnet, love is everything. Loving the beloved is the way that the speaker actually knows she exists. Trying to list the different types of love that she feels, and to work out the relationships between these different kinds of love, becomes a new way of expressing her affection and admiration for "thee."
- Line 1: The speaker begins by posing a question that the entire sonnet will go on to answer: "How do I love thee?" It's interesting that the interrogative word here is "how," rather than "why" or "when." This is not really a rhetorical question, because the speaker does answer it, but it operates in a similar way to rhetorical questions because it introduces the poem and gets the reader thinking.
- Lines 2-4: The speaker uses a spatial metaphor to describe the extent of her love, comparing her soul to a physical, three-dimensional object in the world.
- These three lines also introduce a lot of sound play into the sonnet. In line two, three words have a "th" sound, and a fourth word ("height") comes close. These breathy syllables soften the line, making it more difficult to fit it into a traditional iambic pentameter rhythm. In fact, throughout the poem there's an excess of "th" sounds, some of them voiced (like the "th" in "thee") and some of them unvoiced (like the "th" in "depth"). It might be interesting to think about how the two different kinds of "th" sounds fall into patterns in the poem.
- In lines three and four, the poet uses assonance, repeating long "e" vowel sounds in words like "reach," "feeling," "Being," and "ideal." This repeated long vowel sound adds a brighter, livelier quality to the poem. It also reminds us of what the speaker calls the beloved – "thee."
- There's also an internal rhyme between the word "feeling" in the middle of line three and the word "Being" in the middle of line four. This extra rhyme, along with the rhymes at the ends of the lines, ties the poem together more tightly.
- Lines 5-6: These are some of the only lines in this poem that actually use concrete imagery – "sun and candle-light" – and even then, it's only images of different kinds of light, not necessarily definite objects. Even more so than other poems, this is an extremely abstract, vague lyric that seems to take place out of this world.
- Lines 7-9: These lines use anaphora, beginning with the same phrase, "I love thee," as do lines two, five, and eleven. This parallel structure emphasizes that the poem is in many ways a catalog or list of ways of loving, rather than an extended argument or scene like some other poems.
- Lines 12-14: We can't help but think that claiming you're going to love someone "better after death," whether it's your death or their own, is something of a hyperbole.