In the first line, the speaker poses the main question of the poem: “How do I love thee?” Her mood is pensive yet happy, as she quickly proceeds to answer her own question: “Let me count the ways.” From there, she sets the romantic tone of the poem by listing all the ways in which she loves her lover. The subject “thee” is assumed to be the speaker’s husband.
In lines two through four, the speaker describes the first way in which she loves her husband. She uses physical space as a metaphor to depict her love. Tangible measurements show the greatness of her love—the extent to which her soul can also reach. Her love is so massive that, like her soul, it extends to a point where she cannot even see it anymore. At some point, her soul seems to extend outside her view—the speaker seems to be reaching out to touch it but is unable to do so. She images a point at which her soul, andher love, are out of sight because the end of “being” and “grace” have come—presumably, the poet no longer exists (“being”) and is no longer guided by God in life (“ideal grace”). In other words, she has passed away. However, her love for her husband is so great that it extends past her line of vision—into the afterlife. Even when she is gone, her love will continue.
The speaker repeats the key phrase, “I love thee.” She continues to elaborate on the different ways in which she loves her husband. The tone shifts from a spiritual one to a mundane, grounded one. In these four lines, the speaker now describes her love as a quiet force that sustains her from day to day. In lines six and seven, she once again mentions the extent of her love. This time, she describes this affection as filling the quiet moments of her daily life. The passage of time is marked by the references to light, suggesting that her love endures from one day to the next.
In lines seven and eight, the speaker compares her love to the experiences of mankind (“men”) as a whole. She repeats “I love thee” twice, giving the poem an increasingly confident tone as the speaker convincingly assures the listener that her love is sincere. She explains that she loves her husband freely, just as men strive to do what is right for humanity without thinking twice about it. She gives her love freely, without restraint or hesitation. Furthermore, she loves her husband purely. Her affection is untainted and humble. Just as men humbly shy away from praise when they commit good acts, she does not expect to be commended for her love.
The speaker elaborates further on her love by making a reference to her past. Once again, she repeats “I love thee” to signify yet another new perspective on her love. Her tone becomes slightly somber at this point. She explains how in the past, she suffered “griefs,” or sadness. She put tremendous energy, or “passion,” into resisting this pain. She compares the energy she put into overcoming her sadness to the energy she exerts when loving her husband. Her love for him is intense, just as one might work intensely to overcome pain and distress. She also compares the intensity of this love to the faith she showed as a child. The speaker reveres her husband just as one might revere someone passionately and innocently in his or her youth.
The speaker begins the last four lines of the sonnet by repeating the key phrase, “I love thee,” for the last time. The tone remains somber, as she now mentions loss. She explains ambiguously that she has lost love for the “lost saints” in her life, suggesting a loss of religious faith or confidence in people she once held in high esteem. She equates the power of her love for her husband with what she once felt for these saintly figures.
The speaker then proceeds to describe how she loves her husband with all her physical being. Through all the smiles and tears of her life, she will keep loving him. With every breath, she feels this love that sustains her. At the sonnet’s conclusion, she looks to the future—notably, the afterlife. Despite expressing disappointment in the “saints” of her past, the speaker appears to have maintained her belief in God. She expresses a desire to keep loving her husband from beyond the grave, if God will allow her to do so. Even after she is gone, she feels she can continue to love her husband even more powerfully.
From the poem’s outset, the reader seems to follow the inner monologue of the speaker. No names or gender are ever specified, which may be one reason why the sonnet has been embraced as a universal love poem for all. However, historians agree that Elizabeth Barrett Browning can herself be identified as the speaker, and the poem is a declaration of love for her husband.
The speaker seems to be thinking out loud, as one might do while writing a love letter to someone else. She is challenging herself to analyze her love for her husband. However, her use of the words “let me” in response to her question establishes a conversational tone as well, as if her husband has asked her how she feels about him and she is answering his question. Regardless, the husband’s voice is never depicted in the sonnet—rather, only the speaker’s voice is heard throughout the sonnet. Her tone is amorous and happy.
In lines two through four, the speaker uses a spatial metaphor to describe the first way in which she loves her husband. Initially, she uses rational language to “measure” her love, as if her love is something physical and tangible that takes up space. The words “depth,” “breadth,” and “height” give her love a larger than life appearance. However, by the third line of the sonnet, the tone suddenly shifts to a more spiritual one. The depth of her love is likened to the reach of her soul—a reach so great that she cannot see its limits. Once again, rational language is used to measure the soul, despite the fact that love and the soul are abstract concepts. The speaker then suggests that her love is indeed beyond any physical limits that she can possibly measure. Like her soul, it extends “out of sight”—beyond her view. At this point, her love encompasses a spiritual quality and is no longer the tangible “object” that she once tried to define through measurement. Her soul and her love are likely out of sight as her “being” and “ideal grace” have met their end. This may be interpreted as the speaker’s death, as she no longer exists as a human being and the perfect grace—or the divine support of God—has died with her. However, her love has no boundaries and extends into the realm of the afterlife.
The speaker’s self-assured tone is further emphasized with the repetition of the key words, “I love thee.” With every repetition of this phrase, the power and sincerity of her love shine through. In contrast to the first four lines of the sonnet, lines five through eight suggest another, more down-to-earth angle of the speaker’s love for her husband. While her love is large and powerful and otherworldly, it is also quiet and peaceful. Once again, she attempts to measure her love with the use of the word “level,” describing the extent to which she loves her husband. This time, however, the extent is more tangible than previously described. Her love fills the “quiet need” of her “every day” life. In other words, this is also a practical love that is always present from day to day—a subtle yet powerful life force that keeps her going.
The mention of “sun” and “candle-light” specifically mark the passage of time. However, one might interpret this light imagery as a source of vitality and joy. Her husband lights up her life, bringing her happiness. Sunlight, in particular, is literally needed to sustain life, suggesting that her love for her husband is key to her very existence. The light metaphors likewise hint at a spiritual energy—just as heaven is bright and beautiful, her love for her husband has a bright and divine energy.
In lines seven and eight, the speaker proceeds to use similes as a means of relating her love to the experiences of mankind. She loves her husband “freely,” suggesting that it is her choice to do so and that she gives without restraint. She compares this freedom to the experience of men, or mankind, striving to do what is right for humanity. Loving her husband is the right and natural thing to do, just as mankind should always strive to do the right thing because it brings goodness into the world. She also loves him “purely.” Her love is sincere and whole, and it is untainted by any expectation of reward. Just as men resist, or “turn from,” praise when they commit noble acts, she resists any need to be praised for her love. Her love is humble and modest, just as decent men are when they do good in the world.
Lines nine and ten begin the final sestet of the sonnet. In an ambiguous manner, the speaker hints at past disappointments with the words “old griefs.” The speaker suggests that she once felt pain over someone or something, but that this pain is likely behind her at this point in time. Nonetheless, mentioning this pain gives the poem a sudden touch of sadness that disrupts its otherwise joyful tone. If one looks closely at Barrett Browning’s life, one might think that these griefs may reflect the illnesses of her youth, the premature deaths of family members, or her difficult relationship with her father. However, she now channels these past griefs to demonstrate that the “passion,” or force, with which one resists pain can also be applied to loving someone. This energy can be put to good use, and here, she explains that she has put it towards her love for her husband.
Likewise, she compares the intensity of her love to the power of her childhood faith. This “faith” may be interpreted as religious faith, or it may be viewed as belief in something or someone great. A child’s faith is innocent and intense, such as the faith put in a parent or a mythical figure (Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the like). As an adult, she is now exhibiting the same earnest, intense faith in her husband that she showed for all the things and people she believed in as a child.
The last four lines of the poem make direct references to spirituality and religion. The use of the words “lose” and “lost” within the same phrase instantly deepens the somber and reflective mood of the final sestet. The speaker is digging more deeply into her past—and her soul—as a means of giving an even more profound explanation of her love. While previous lines suggested disappointments from her past, the speaker now declares boldly that she actually lost her love for certain figures who were important to her. The use of the word “saints” conjures a religious image, and one might believe that she once suffered a loss of religious faith. Alternatively, one might surmise that she looked up to certain people with such high regard that she considered them saintly. However, she only “seemed” to lose this love, as now she has found that the love she felt before has not been lost at all—she feels it for her husband.
The speaker then continues to describe how her love consumes her, body and soul. Through her “smiles” and “tears”—through good and bad times—she continues to love. The mention of “breath” once again suggests the importance of her love to her daily existence. Her love keeps her going through life, and it is as necessary as breathing. In the last two lines, the speaker makes the first direct reference to God. By mentioning his name, she clarifies that she is still a pious person despite any disappointments she may have experienced in the past. While it is suggested throughout the sonnet that the speaker is in control of her love—that she willfully loves her husband—the conclusion suggests that the speaker believes that only God can ultimately decide if her love will continue when she is gone. If God wills it, she will love her husband “better,” or even more powerfully, in the afterlife. The speaker exhibits a loss of control at the poem’s conclusion, as she is essentially saying that she can only hope that her love will stand the test of time.