Seeing as tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d pick a poem that has to do with romantic love for this week. It’s also a poem you’re likely familiar with, or at least its famous opening line: “How do I love thee?/ Let me count the ways,” otherwise known as “Sonnet 43.” It’s a classic piece by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
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 everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee 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.
Though the obvious focus of the sonnet is on how much Browning cares for her husband (this is one of a series of sonnets written specifically for Robert Browning), the moments that do reference death are worth noting. One of these instances is within the lines, “I love thee with a passion put to use/In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith” (9-10). The analogy formed by the “passion put to use” in Browning’s “old griefs” is that she loves her husband with as much passion and force as she used to expend in mourning her losses. This conveys, in just a few words, how strongly the poet feels. Also, the notion of feeling this way with “childhood’s faith” means that she loves him unconditionally, with the trust that a child has in their (albeit, naïve) belief that everything they hear is true. Her love is blind, and ardent.
Browning then draws a contrast between the love she feels and will continue to feel in her lifetime, and the love she will feel for her husband after his death: “…I love thee with the breath,/Smiles, tears, of all my life!” (12-13). Here she emphasizes aspects of life with words like “breath” and “smiles, tears” to truly highlight the differences between life and death. And she will love Browning for “all” her life, for however long she lives. But her words on death are not sorrowful: “…and, if God choose,/I shall but love thee better after death” (13-14). If her love must die, or, in her spiritual view, “if God choose,” she will not mourn his death, because she does not view it as losing him; he will continue to live on, and she will only love him “better,” or more, after he is gone. And if the last lines are interpreted to mean she will love him after her own death, the strength of her devotion becomes even more solidified.
So if you find yourself sad this Valentine’s Day, perhaps mourning a spouse who has died, “count the ways” that you love him or her, and remember that loved ones are never really gone if they remain in our hearts.