OK, I know this poem is a little clichéd, but it is Valentine’s Day so I figured I would read it this morning.
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 the 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.
While on the surface this seems like the sappiest of love poems, there is something spiritual going on that is the heart of the poem. What Browning is expressing is love for God as opposed to love for another human being; although, I suppose you could argue that she is seeing the manifestation of God within her lover, but I will avoid going down that rabbit hole.
As I read the first line, I picture a woman, possibly a nun, meditating on God while counting on rosary beads. If you begin from this point, the entire poem becomes a meditative reflection on a devotee’s love for the Divine. This is affirmed by the capitalization of the key words referring to God: Being, Grace, Right, and of course God.
For me, the most interesting line is: “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose / With my lost saints.” It appears that Browning is expressing that religious dogma has failed and that the true path to God, and to the experience of God’s love, is through direct prayer and meditation. Praying to the saints as mediators between oneself and God pales in comparison with directly connecting to the divine spirit.
Browning concludes the sonnet with “if God choose, / I shall but love thee better after death.” I sense a deep longing in this line, a longing to become united with God. There is such passion, I cannot help but envision Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. The passion that is experienced when connecting with the Divine on a deep level is akin to the ultimate transcendent sexual experience. It is the greatest moment to which one can aspire.
While I am not a Catholic, I can relate to the feeling expressed in this poem. Interaction with the Divine Spirit, through whichever path you choose, is the most powerful experience one can have. It is what keeps me searching spiritual pathways and traditions. I hope that one day I too may experience that perfect moment of bliss where I become one with the Divine.
Have a blessed Valentine’s Day!!