How Do I Love Thee Analysis Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote “How Do I Love Thee?”, was an English poet of the Romantic movement. Born in 1806, Browning is the author of the renowned collection “Sonnets from the Portuguese”, a series of 44 love poems written in tribute to her husband, Robert Browning. Elizabeth Barrett Browning received a deep education, both formal and informal, due to being of high social rank. Her mother was a well-read woman and Elizabeth read regularly in her father’s library, which held more than 10,000 books. Elizabeth wrote her first works as early as 10 years old. By the age of eleven, Elizabeth Barrett Browning had composed her eighty-page epic, The Battle of Marathon.

Themes and Structure

The poem “How Do I Love Thee?” is a sonnet composed of iambic pentameter and a heroic couplet. The poem is structured in a traditional Petrarchan form, wherein it is composed of fourteen lines consisting of a octave and sestet. The octave’s main idea is explored and analyzed between the turn of the octave and the sestet’s rhyme; whereas, the sestet often transitions an idea regarding the main idea. In essence, her elegant, lyrical language works to bring the reader along in her journey of introspective love and devotion, beautifully poetically expressing her internal conflicts and hesitations to demonstrate a powerful, unstated self-esteem and strength.

Message and Analysis

The poem illustrates the speaker’s love for another person, typically not named. The speaker contemplates different levels of commitment, throughout the sonnet. These expressions of love are often found deeply embedded within religious connotations. An example of the religious references can be found in line three, which states, “Thy soul can hit the sight of mine”, replacing the classic “Thine eyes can meet mine” to further enhance the religious undertone and reference that the speaker’s feelings are deeper than mortal connection. The message is one of an unconditional and unlimited love, across space and time.

Critical Reception

Since its publication “How Do I Love Thee?” has received considerable critical acclaim. When it was published it had almost instant success, though, at that time, the critical opinions of Elizabeth’s works were often portrayed primarily through the eyes of Robert Browning. Still, with the passing of time and long after the death of both of the poets, the poem continues to be praised for its indescribable beauty and deep emotion.

Legacy and Influence

The timelessness of Elizabeth’s poem is no mistake, it stands as an icon of the Romanticism tradition, with its beautiful language and passionate emotion. Moreover, its contribution to both literature and culture has been felt almost two centuries after its original publication. The power of the poem lies in its ability to convey the complexities of feelings and its depictions of the confusion of human emotions. It’s seen as a clear example of its author’s work, one that will remain forever cherished.

Impact of Religion

Though Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not write her works to reflect her religious beliefs or serve necessarily as expressions of worship, she did often refer to religious works in her poetry. She included references to both the religious figures, such as Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and other religious texts within her works. In “How Do I Love Thee?” she demonstrates her ability to weave together elements of spirituality and her understanding of eternal love in a few short lines. The impact of religion on Browning’s work is still felt today.

Modern Adaptations

The brilliance of “How Do I Love Thee?” is the fact that its powerful words and passionate emotions can apply to those of different cultures and time periods. This fact has made it easy for the poem to be adapted to different versions or interpretations and has served as a source of inspiration for countless authors in the past centuries. Examples of modern adaptations to the poem include variations on the original line structure, lyric of new songs, and poems dedicated as a tribute.

Critical Approaches

Literary theories and approaches have been used to analyse this poem in a variety of ways. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and poems like “How Do I Love Thee?” have and continue to be analysed through the lens of feminism, gender studies, deconstructionism, romanticism, and modernism. Each of these approaches brings a set of tools and distinct framework to analyse such poems as “How Do I Love Thee?” and can lend to new interpretations and readings of the poem.

Contexts of Interpretation

It is worth mentioning that the power of the poem lies in its universal themes, than can be interpreted in various contexts. It has been read as ode to the love within a marriage, an inquiry into the depth of emotions, a comparison of religion and earthly love, and has even been seen as a lament, a protest against the expectation that love is limited. Its ability to be interpreted for many different kinds of love and relationships, makes Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” an timeless, immortal poem.

Moving Forward

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her poem “How Do I Love Thee?” has gained a permanent spot in Romanticism, thanks to its timeless themes, empowering message and beautiful language. The poem reflects on the uniquely human ability of sensing and expressing love and, in a timeless and transcendent way, presents the audience with a powerful, but delicate example of everlasting love. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem will continue to be studied and adored in the future.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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