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Featured Poem: How do I Love Thee by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Written by The Reader, 13th February 2017

We could hardly have anything other than a love poem this week now could we? Our Featured Poem is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's How do I Love Thee.

This week we return to Clare's Read of the Week selection from last August when she discussed the collection from which this week's Featured Poem is taken:

‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’

In her sequence of 44 love sonnets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning does just that – counts and explores in the truest language imaginable all of the different ways in which she loves her dear husband, Robert Browning.

I think there is something about the fact that Barrett Browning is writing so directly from her own life experience (even though out of a desire for privacy she publishes them as if there were in translation from another source) that makes the poems feel so true, so real, and which for me in turn translates quite naturally into all of the different and intricate ways that I might love a person and/or be loved in return.

Sometimes I feel as if the word love is overused today – that it has perhaps become a cliché in our commercial world or is simply used too easily, too quickly. But Barrett Browning restores my belief in love I think and gives me a language to get beyond and underneath that four letter word.

I would strongly recommend that we all need to be slowed right down by this great writer and in the process be able to rediscover what love is and perhaps put better into words one of life’s greatest forces. I know there isn’t a single sonnet in this collection that I don’t feel personally connected to, simultaneously recognising something familiar but now heightened or refined through the distillation of Barrett Browning’s words. I find myself coming back to her Sonnets again and again after 15 years now!

I’ve used selections from her work in reading groups as well as in my personal reading and life – for me one of the greatest writers on love who can helps us to reach the heights of
the soul as well as reveals the beauty of the ordinary and commonplace – or, in her own words, to love…

How Do I Love Thee?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
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.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints; -- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! -- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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