The speaker poses the question that's going to drive the entire poem: how does she love "thee," the man she loves?
She decides to count the ways in which she loves him throughout the rest of the poem. (For an explanation of why we think the speaker is female and the beloved is male, see the "Speaker" section.)
Now, this all might seem pretty straightforward – after all, the line is simply "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." But we'd like to point out that deciding to "count" the ways you love someone does seem a bit, well, calculating. The speaker's initial decision to count types of love is intriguing. For her, love is best expressed by making a list, and that just seems weird to us. However, since she wants to "count the ways" – and she seems to have forgotten the actual numbers – we'll try to help her out by putting them back in! As you read on, we'll keep a count of Ways of Loving.
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.
The speaker describes her love using a spatial metaphor: her love extends to the "depth" and "breadth" and "height" that her soul can "reach." It's interesting to think of love as a three-dimensional substance filling the container of her soul.
Notice also that her love extends exactly as far as her soul in all directions – maybe her love and her soul are the same thing. Cool, eh?
The next part of the sonnet is a little bit trickier: "when feeling out of sight / For the ends of Being and ideal Grace" (3-4). This is an ambiguous passage, but we like to interpret this as the speaker "feeling for" the edges of her "Being" that are just "out of sight" – just the way that you try to feel for a glass of water on your bedside table that's just beyond your peripheral vision. As she's trying to feel the full extent of her soul, she realizes that she loves "thee" in every part of it – to the "depth and breadth and height" that it reaches.
To put it another way, when the speaker is trying to figure out ("feeling") how far her soul (her "Being") extends in the world, she realizes that her love for the beloved extends just as far (that's all the "depth and breadth and height" stuff in line 3).
Notice that if you put the "feeling" together with the "reach," this metaphor is very reliant on images of touch. We get the sense that the speaker is stretching out with both arms, trying to explain how broad and wide and deep her love is. It's a much more poetic version of saying "I love you THIS MUCH" with your arms flung wide.
Anyway, this spatial love is the first of the "ways" of loving that the speaker lists.
I love thee to the level of everyday's Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
The poem becomes much more grounded and down-to-earth in the description of the next way to love. As the speaker explains, she loves her beloved "to the level of everyday's / most quiet need." This is a reminder that, even though she loves him with a passionate, abstract intensity (see lines 2-4), she also loves him in a regular, day-to-day way.
Even though it's not directly described, we get a sense of everyday domestic living here – the reality of wanting to be with someone all the time in a low-stakes kind of way. This is a "married-and-hanging-out-watching-TV-on-the-couch-each-night" kind of love, instead of a "Romeo-and-Juliet-are-going-to-die-tomorrow" kind.
It's important, however, that this doesn't mean the love is any less significant. The everyday "need" for love may be "quiet," but it's definitely there.
The speaker completes the description of this everyday love with two images of light: "by sun and candle-light." Basically, this is just a way of saying "in the day and at night," but it also reminds us that the lovers are looking at each other all the time – and that the speaker here loves her beloved no matter what light she sees him in.
If you're counting, this everyday love is the second of the "ways" of loving that the speaker lists.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right; I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
The first half of each of these lines is extremely simple: "I love thee freely" and "I love thee purely." Those seem like pretty good ways to love – after all, you wouldn't want love to be forced or impure, right? The tricky part comes in the second half of each line, where the speaker describes something else that's supposed to happen "freely" or "purely."
First, the speaker tells us, "I love thee freely, as men strive for Right" (7). If you turn this around for a moment, the speaker is implying that "men strive for Right" in a "free" way. That is, trying to be morally good isn't something anyone has to do – it's something they choose to do of their own free will. Isn't it?
Well, in a way it is, because everything we do is a choice, but in another way, people try to do the right thing because they think they ought to. So, if the speaker's love is just as "free" as being ethically good, then maybe it's not quite as free as we thought. Maybe it's something she feels she has to do, even when she doesn't want to. The poem is getting edgy!
Next, the speaker tells us, "I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise." That is, her love is "pure" in the way that being modest and refusing everyone else's admiration is pure.
Perhaps the speaker is also implying that she's not proclaiming her love in order to be applauded by her readers. She's not seeking praise for writing a great poem about love; she loves without wanting any reward or commendation.
If you're counting, "freely" is the third way and "purely" is the fourth way of loving that the speaker lists.