Elizabeth Barret Browning's Treatment of Love Depicted in Her Poem, "How Do I love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways"
Every individual has his/ her own definition to explain what love is. It depends on the person in interpreting the love; it may be either an attachment or a sexual desire, or both of them. But love is more than a hug, a kiss, and feelings of desire. Love can be showed through a sensitive attitude, caring and sincere action, then emotionally love will appear and grow up. However, love is an emotional feeling that cannot be defined in detail. Katherine Hepburn defines:
Love is something that you will take, but it relates with something you will give. You give because of love and cannot stop. If you are very lucky, maybe you will be loved. It is beautiful, but love does not always like that.
(Ekeren, 2003: 107)
Love has wide scope; there is love for God, families, love between persons (man and woman), love for nation, etc. When love comes, it usually does not concern position, authority, wealth, and physical appearance.
Love needs a struggle, sacrifice, appreciation and expectation to pursuit happiness together, but after all, love can lose if there is no mutual understanding and honesty. Everyone owns different way to love and to find love. It depends on the circumstances and person involved in the situation. One usually has to struggle to get his/ her lover and to maintain the love.
The poem chosen to analyze is one of the 44 series of sonnets written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Here she has selected the 43rd series of them in which the first line reads How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways. Here she will discuss the treatments of love depicted in the poem of Elizabeth Barrett Browning entitled How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. The discussion will cover love as the source of self-consciousness, of self-confidence, and of self-sufficient.
Angela Leighton says that How do I love thee? Let me count the ways (1986: 91) is one of the lines in Elizabeth’s poem representing the love which is so intimate and so exclusively addressed to her husband. The sonnet of the 43rd expresses her love for her husband. Thus the sonnet is called a true love poem between the poetess and her lover.
The above quotation is an anecdot that talks about the other side of the gender barrier. This anecdot shows a dreadful thing to marriage especially for women. That is what Elizabeth heard when she was a child. She does not believe that marriage can make her happy. She thinks that husbands change slowly and stop loving their wives. Moreover, they change into other men. However, Browning’s constant efforts melt her frozen heart. Love gradually grows in her heart for Browning.
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 7-10)
In the above quotation, she emphasizes that love is not heart breaking as what her father has told her. At first, she thinks that love hurts as what she felt when she lost her brother. She has ever thought she is the cause of her brother’s death, but Browning’s love wakes her consciousness of the meaning of true love.
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 12-13)
In the above quotation, Elizabeth emphasizes that love does not only give her happiness but also grief, but she realizes that it is life, her destiny and she can handle it because she loves Browning in all the way he is.
4.2 Love as the Source of Self-Confidence
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 1)
The above quotation shows Elizabeth’s over self-confidence in love. The question she raises does not need any answer; she is the only one who can answer it. As the matter of fact, it does not seem like a question but a declaration of her self-confidence in love. In her past time, she views love as something which can not be expected from others. It is only her father whom properly she loves though he always dominates her with his power. The other person she loves is her brother, as seen in the following quotation:
In the above quotation, Elizabeth emphasizes her love to her brother. He is the one she loves after her father and he is the one who understands her passion in literature. She does not need to love any other men although it does not mean she does not want it because she has no self confidence to love other persons. When she knows Browning and falls in love with him, her self-confidence raises to discharge her father’s influence in her life as it is seen in the following:
I love thee purely, ad they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 7-9)
In the above quotation, Elizabeth emphasizes that she has strength and independence to reject the authority of any other persons especially her father. She says that her love is free, pure and passionate to Browning. Before they meet, Elizabeth has always obeyed her father and put in authority under him, including his hostility towards marriage which means that it is forbidden to marry for all of his children. It is something she has always accepted, but when she meets Browning, it is for the first time she is questioning the obedience to her father. She does not like making her father sad for she can never be grateful enough for the indulgence he has shown her, rare in a father, with regard to her studies and her writing, and the pride he has shown in her face. Above all, for his support at the time of her brother’s death. But then she thinks that he bears her life at risk. Mander says that this is the time she is confused to choose either the proposal from Browning or the love from her beloved father (Mander, 1980: 46).
Smiles, tears, of all my life!__...
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line:13-14)
4.3 Love as the Source of Self – Sufficient
The first time Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning make correspondence, their letters are flourishing for several weeks. At last, Elizabeth allows Robert to visit her. A day or two later he writes her a hasty and ill-timed declaration of his feelings. Elizabeth considers it an intemperate thing. This early misunderstanding is succeeded by others and then love letters are flourishing again between them. From the beginning of their relationship, Elizabeth broadly hints that she is an elaborate woman as she has a problem with male vanity. She does not want to admit male vanity including in love that is given by man to her. Robert gives credit to her inherent superiority. He admits that she is superior to him in many things. Therefore he hopes her sympathy and assistance of her superior. This credit makes Elizabeth tend towards a more generous, if exaggerated, praise of the man. She looks for an imaginative rights in loving, that is her right to be the lover and not the beloved. A competition rises between them to be the lover, not the beloved.
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 everyday’s
Most quite need, by sun and candle-light.
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 1-6)
In the above quotation she offers her love to the beloved by giving a question but then she answers it by herself. It needs no answer. She knows that she loves him with all her heart and she gives her soul to love Robert until the end of her life. The poem does not invoke the presence or the attention or the reciprocity of the loved object. She portrays herself as both a conscious and self-sufficient person in this poem. She is conscious of the power of her love, and she is sufficient to be the lover. The effect of this is one of verbal self- sufficiency and self- confidence. The beloved is there, but he is not exactly needed. What is needed is that the poetess herself should have the courage to speak,’my soul can reach…,’ and she will love him even he does not care for her. To love becomes her purpose in life. She seems satisfied with a phrase merely. Its scope becomes that of her whole life; her ambitions, her banalities, her heights, and her levels. It is the mark of her love poems that she does not struggle for the attention of the beloved, she does not plead or admire. Then she portrays the love with a ‘grief’ as follows:
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 10)
With my lost saints,-…
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 11-12)
…if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death
(How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways, line: 13-14)
In the above quotation, she emphasizes that she will love Robert until the end of her life. It is why she does not need reciprocity from Robert to love her. She does not plead to be loved by him. Love suffices for her, until the death comes to her.