I've known the title of this poem, 'How do I Love Thee' for years, but I don't know if I've ever read the poem itself.
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 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.
That first line is arresting and deservedly well known. Browning puts out a challenge. She loves the target of the poem, can she put that love into words? Specifically, can she show the different ways that she loves?
I'm not so sure that she can. Take the first on the list: 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'm not at all sure what that means. Ok, the first line is the size of the soul (or perhaps the volume); the size it can reach when 'feeling out of sight for the ends of being and ideal grace'. Why is the soul out of sight? Does that help it somehow with the ends of being? Does it help it achieve some kind of ideal grace?
The next few on the list seem fine to me but I'm again stumped by the 'passion put to use/In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith'. Is that such a personal reference of Brownings that it isn't universally available to others? Or is she saying that she hasn't had such passion since she believed things as a child?
I do like the last lines, about love after death. I know there is some question in religious circles as to what the afterlife will actually be like. I like the nod to that uncertainty and the hope that she will be able to continue that love.