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Interpretation of Poem “How Do I Love Thee” Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnet 43 is easily one of the most famous and recognizable poems in the English language

In the poem, the speaker is proclaiming her unending passion for her beloved. She tells her lover just how deeply her love goes, and she also tells him how she loves him. She loves him with all of her being, and she hopes God will grant her the ability to love him even after she has passed.

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In the poem "How do I Love Thee", Elizabeth Barret Browning expresses her everlasting nature of love and its power to overcome all, including death. In the introduction of the poem Line 1 starts off and captures the reader’s attention. It asks the simple question, "How do I Love Thee?" Throughout the rest of the poem repetition occurs. Repetition of how she would love thee is a constant reminder in her poem. However, the reader will quickly realize it is not the quantity of love, but its quality of love; this is what gives the poem its power. For example she says, “I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” She is expressing how and what she would love with, and after death her love only grows stronger. Metaphors that the poet use spreads throughout the poem expressing the poets love for her significant other. How Do I Love Thee is a fourteen-line rhymed lyric poem, and is written in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme of this poem is that it 's not a traditional English sonnet pattern like the sonnets that are Shakespearian. This poem rhyme scheme is ABBAABBA CDCDCD

Instead of following Shakespeare or any of the other great English sonneteers; Barrett Browning chooses to be Unorthodox.

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The fulfillment of the speech act “consists in its recognition” (6) as is clearly illustrated in this case.Yet the poem still successfully has the impact of being a passionate declaration of love, convincing us that this love is not a passing fancy but real and everlasting. Let us examine the poem in more depth. She begins with a question – “How do I love thee?”(l.1)Is this a rhetorical question? Barrett desires the reader to ponder the question in anticipation of what is to follow. There are so many ways in which the speaker loves the object of her affections that she feels the need to count and list them one by one, using anaphora with her repeated phrase ‘I love thee…’:“I love thee to the depth and breadth of height…”(l.2)Here we have not only internal rhyme (depth, breadth), but also a sort of paradox: she is using abstract analogies to describe her love as being three-dimensional and therefore very much a part of the real world. Her love extends to the limits of the physical world. There is also an element of intertexuality, as this could also be a reference to an Epistle of St Paul to the Ephesians, where the Apostle desires to understand “the length, breadth, depth and height of Christ’s and the fullness of God” (7)

This links directly to the idea of her love as a spiritual thing, as she reiterates in the next line, with the mention of her soul:“My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight…” (l.3)

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In any event, the reference to “Being” and “Grace” in line 3 relate to the ‘Great Chain of Being’ which links God with man via the angels right down to the animals, plants and the Earth itself. “Grace” is the ‘link’ within the chain, connecting God with all of his creation. As God’s love is infinite, Barrett Browning is declaring her love as the same, unconditionally reaching out to the length, breadth and height of Being and Grace

Her love reaches beyond her life, beyond Being and Grace, to the end of her life – to her salvation.

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The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

“ARTS1030 Introduction to English: Literary Genres” , UNSW, Sydney, 2010, p24.(3)

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

Wordsworth, W and Taylor Coleridge, S, Lyrical ballads, with other poems : in two volumes, Biggs and Co. Bristol, London : 1800, Preface.

J. L. Austin, How to do things with words, Oxford: Oxford Uni Press (1912)

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