Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” is part of the volume Sonnets from the Portuguese. The collection of 44 sonnets was published in 1850 and dedicated to her husband, the poet Robert Browning. This poem, in particular, is among the best known of Browning’s verses and considered by many to be one of the most famous love poems in the English language.
“Sonnet 43” is a love poem written from the perspective of a woman to her lover. It is written in iambic pentameter and follows the Italian sonnet tradition in the style of Petrarch. A Petrarchan sonnet contains 14 lines: an octet of eight lines followed by a sextet of six lines. The speaker begins the poem by asking herself, in the first line, in what ways she loves her lover. The rest of the poem is essentially an answer to this question. The speaker proceeds to “count” the ways she loves him by describing the extent of her feelings. She first illustrates her love as a kind of three-dimensional energy, taking up the full space of her soul. Love is portrayed in an abstract manner and given a spiritual intensity. The speaker then describes her love in a more mundane manner, equating her feelings to the practical need for the light of the sun. The poem continues to describe feelings of passion with religious overtones, as the speaker makes references to religious faith and concludes with the hope that God will let her continue to love her lover in the afterlife.
Barrett Browning composed Sonnets from the Portuguese during her courtship with her husband. While they exchanged 600 personal letters before their marriage, Barrett Browning kept her sonnets to herself and did not show them to her husband until three years after their marriage. Eventually, he persuaded her to publish them. The poems were met with a lukewarm reception, despite the fact that Barrett Browning had already established a positive literary reputation. Many critics believed that the poet had attempted to make the volume look like the translation of another poet’s work so as to make the poems appear less personal. However, subsequent critics discovered that Robert Browning actually referred to his wife as his “little Portuguese” as a term of endearment. When the public became aware of her real-life love story with her husband—fueled by critics’ reviews of the work and later cemented by the publication of their personal letters in 1899 by the Brownings’ son—the sonnets became more popular among readers. Once the autobiographical nature of the volume came to light, the Victorians viewed the sonnets more favorably as a testament to a real-life couple’s enduring love story. However, some critics viewed the love letters as stronger and more honest than the sonnets. A 1906 article claimed that Barrett Browning’s poetry lacked completion, but that she herself was a “complete woman.” Elizabeth Porter Gould further supports this notion by stating that the letters are far more powerful than the less interesting sonnets. Nonetheless, the publication of this volume cemented Barrett Browning’s enduring reputation as a poet who immortalized her own love story in verse.