The speaker’s gender is never specified in the poem. However, one might consider Elizabeth Barrett Browning to be the speaker, as she dedicated this poem to her husband. The speaker muses out loud about her love for someone and then, throughout the sonnet, lists the ways in which she loves him. She addresses this person directly.
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The sonnet follows the Italian form as established by Petrarch. It contains 14 lines: one octet (eight lines) followed by a sestet (six lines). The poem follows a traditional rhyme scheme for this type of sonnet: ABBAABBACDCDCD. It contains end rhymes and follows iambic pentameter, following a natural rhythmic pattern.
“I love thee freely, as men strive for right” (simile) – Using the word “as” to establish the simile, the speaker compares the way in which she loves her husband to the way in which mankind strives to do good in the world. Her love is as freely and spontaneously given as the dedication of men who strive to accomplish good things for humanity.
“I love thee purely, as they turn from praise” (simile) – Using the word “as” to establish the simile, the speaker compares the pure and humble nature of her love to the humility that decent men exhibit. Just as decent human beings commit good deeds without expecting praise in return, she loves purely without expectation of reward,.
“By sun and candle-light” (metaphor) – The mention of sun and candle-light serves as a metaphor for the passage of time and the course of one’s life. The speaker’s love fills her days and keeps her going through life.
“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/ My soul can reach” (metaphor) – The speaker attempts to quantify her love by measuring the physical space it takes up. As love is an abstract concept which cannot be measured, the references to these measurements are intended metaphorically to convey the immensity of her love.
“I love thee” (alliteration) – The phrase is technically repeated throughout the poem. However, lines seven through nine all begin with this phrase, emphasizing the sincerity of the speaker.
“I love thee with a love I seemed to lose” (alliteration) –The repetition of the “l” consonant rolls off the tongue and creates a soft and somber tone.
“I love thee to the depth and breadth” (assonance) — The repetition of the short “e” sound in “depth” and “breadth” produces a rhyme and gives the speaker a matter-of-fact tone. She confidently measures the immensity of her love.
“I love thee freely, as men strive for right” (assonance and alliteration) – The words “thee” and “freely” both contain a long “e” sound that gives the speaker a confident, liberated tone. The long “I” sound contained in “strive” and “right” creates a heavy sound, suggesting the plight of people who work hard to make things right for humanity.
In lines nine through twelve, the speaker explains how she once had to try hard to overcome the disappointments of her past. Now, she is converting that powerful energy into something positive, turning the sadness of the past into the happiness of the present. Similarly, she once believed she had lost the love she felt for the “saints” in her life. Now, she realizes that she is just as capable of loving strongly as before. This time, she has channeled her love for her husband.
The tone is romantic and confident at the outset. The speaker is certain of her love and wishes to analyze all of its nuances. However, the tone turns somber and humble when she mentions the grievances of her past. The speaker has suffered disappointments that may or may not have to do with her religious faith. Despite these setbacks, however, her faith has been restored by her love for her husband. The entire poem is a contemplation of her life’s experiences and the ways in which they have shaped her understanding of her love.
The speaker is the protagonist, describing her love for her husband. The antagonist may be considered fate or even God—forces that may challenge her ability to love once she is gone. While her love is powerful, only God can choose whether she will be able to love in the afterlife.
The speaker has suffered spiritual disappointments in the past that once threatened to diminish her capacity to love. Furthermore, she wonders if God will choose to let her love her husband even more once she has left this world.
The climax occurs in line nine, at the start of the final sestet. The tone shifts to a religious one, as the speaker digs deeper into her soul to reveal all the ways in which her love outshines the pain of her past. Her love for her husband is exalted to the point of religious adoration, as he seems to replace the “lost saints” she once revered before.
The last two lines foreshadow the speaker’s eventual death. She acknowledges that one day she will be gone, and she expresses hope that she will be able to love her husband even more after her passing.
No examples of understatement.
The speaker alludes to religion and spirituality throughout the poem. She believes her love can extend to the depths of her soul, even when she is no longer supported by the grace of God. Her love for her husband is as intense as what she once felt for the lost “saints” of her life. Lastly, she mentions God by name; she proclaims that she will love her husband even more when she is gone if God chooses to let her do so.
“Depth and breadth and height” (metonymy) – The measurements described represent the vastness of the speaker’s love. Love is given a physical presence, and the speaker attempts to measure it as a means of showing how great it is.
“My soul can reach”— In a way, the soul is personified as a human being who reaches out, just as the speaker attempts to “show” through measurements the very vastness of her love.
“Depth and breadth and height” – The speaker’s love is portrayed as larger than life or as an actual physical mass capable of being measured.
“I love thee with a love I seemed to lose/With my lost saints” – The speaker exalts her lover by comparing him to saints or people capable of being as pure and perfect as saints.
“I love thee with the breath,/Smiles, tears, of all my life” – The speaker describes her love as a deeply physical experience, as if this affection is contained within every breath and movement she makes.
“I shall but love thee better after death” – The speaker believes she is capable of loving her husband even more strongly after she is gone.
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Sonnet 43 (How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.) Questions and Answers
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