Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
- First we'll need to explain what "old griefs" are. Think of an incident in your past that you still feel really angry about. Consider the intensity of your feelings when you think about this incident – you know, the sort of thing that absolutely has you gnashing your teeth and spitting and swearing and absolutely seething with bitter fury. No, no, we're not thinking of any particular personal example...*ahem*.
- Where were we? Oh, right, "old griefs." Incidents like that one – the teeth-gnashing one – are your "old griefs." Now imagine if you could use all the "passion" and intensity of that bitter feeling and convert it somehow into love. That's what the speaker is talking about.
- It's a little like when people say "you could power this whole city with the energy he spends playing Mario Kart on his new Wii." The speaker of this poem is saying "I love you with all the energy I used to spend being bitter about stuff in my past."
- Of course, what we worry about is: how effectively is this bitterness being converted into love, anyway? Maybe some of the bitterness on one side of the metaphor is, well, oozing over onto the other side. This poem is starting to get interesting!
- The speaker also claims that she loves her beloved "with my childhood's faith." We're going to have to do another thought exercise to explain this one…
- Remember how thoroughly you believed in stuff when you were a kid? You know, stuff, like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, and your mom's ability to fix anything you broke, and your dad's ability to answer any question, and the way you believed that adults mostly knew what they were doing and everybody followed the rules. That's your "childhood's faith."
- Now imagine if you could divert that kind of energy into loving someone. Yes, our speaker loves her beloved in that way, too. Of course, just as the previous metaphor seems to inject an odd kind of bitterness and anger into the world of love, this metaphor seems to bring with it connotations of naïveté and simplicity.
- If you're counting, the "old griefs" way of loving is number five, and the "childhood's faith" way is number six.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints –
- The "lost saints" aren't misplaced Catholic statues. Instead, they're the people you used to believe in that you don't have faith in anymore. You know, heroes who let you down, whether they're famous people (Roger Clemens? Britney Spears?) or just friends or family members who you once had a really high opinion of and now, well, they seem merely human.
- So this kind of loving is also about faith: what if you could take the love you had for your heroes, before you were disillusioned about them, and channel that into loving someone? That's the kind of love the speaker is describing here.
- This is the seventh kind of love mentioned in the poem, but who's counting?
I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! –
- The speaker tells us that she loves her beloved "with the breath, / Smiles, tears of all my life!" (12-13). What does that mean?
- Well, obviously she loves him with every smile that crosses her face – her happiness is always an expression of loving him, even when she's smiling about something else.
- But it's not just her happy moments that go into loving him; it's the sad ones, too (the "tears") and even the regular, unemotional moments – the continuous "breath" of life. Even breathing in and out seems to be a way of loving in this poem.
- If you count "breath," "smiles," and "tears" separately, these are ways number eight, nine, and ten of loving described in the poem.
and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
- Now that the speaker has claimed every single breath she takes is an expression of love for her beloved, what's left?
- Well, what about the time when she's not breathing? You know, when she's dead? The speaker's final claim is that, if God lets her, she's going to love her beloved even more intensely "after death."
- Of course, the poem isn't totally clear about whether the speaker or the beloved is the one who's going to die. That's left ambiguous, but it could really be either or both of them – the point is that, even in death, this speaker is going to find a new way of loving.
- We'll just call this "afterlife" way of loving "number eleven," since it's the eleventh and final way to love that appears on the list given in this poem.