Words of Love: Poems for Valentine’s Day
A story is told about a man of stoical disposition who came downstairs on the morning of his 30th anniversary to find his wife in tears at the breakfast table.
“What’s the matter Dear?” he asked her, while pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“In all our married life,” she sobbed, “you’ve never told me you loved me,” she replied.
“Listen, my Dear,” he replied after taking a few sips of the dark brew from his mug, “before I married you, I told you I loved you. Had anything changed, you would have been the first to know.”
I told this joke to one of my patients, a man in his mid-forties, who reported that his wife complains he is not verbal enough in expressing his affection for her. When I questioned him about it, he replied, “I do tell her I love her.”
“Give me an example of how you might tell her,” I suggested.
“I might say, ‘I love you, I couldn’t manage without you.’ What else is there to say?”
For inspiration I referred him to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous sonnet How do I love thee?
Here it is:
How do I love thee?
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 every day’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.
For those who would like to hear how it sounds when someone reads it aloud to you, my friend Katie Finneran, a Tony award-winning actress, has kindly recorded it for us. Here is her version:
About the poem
The first five small words of the poem, “How do I love thee?” clustered together in this way, are among the best known in English literature. So is the sentence that follows: “Let me count the ways,” which has provided titles for songs, books and TV episodes. In this blog, we will consider what makes this poem such a perennial favorite as well as the story of its famous author.
Finally, I will suggest that we take advantage of the approach of Valentine’s Day to look for the poet inside each of us to see whether we can find the words to bring us closer to our loved ones.
For a poem of such enduring power, How do I love thee is surprisingly short – a sonnet which, by definition, is only fourteen lines long. Specifically, it is a sonnet in the style of the great Italian poet Petrarch, who developed a structure in which the poem is divided into two: eight lines (an octet) followed by six lines (a sestet). Between the octet and the sestet there is a shift in tone and focus, which may elicit a corresponding shift in the reader, often deepening our understanding of the poem and the poet.
With the opening question, “How do I love thee?” the poet opens her mind and heart to her loved one and asks how she feels about him. Consider how different this is from the type of questions lovers often ask, such as: “Does he/she love me or not, and if so, how much?” These questions are understandable, but they are directed at the security and romantic hopes of the questioner. In contrast, Barrett Browning examines her own feelings, the wonderous state of mind of being in love – and tries to understand its elements.
What does the poem teach us about love?
Often we hear love expressed as a function of the qualities of the loved one, as in: “I love you because you are beautiful, clever, successful, etc.” These are very different from the sentiments expressed in the present poem, which don’t imply that love is conditional. If I love you because you are beautiful, what will happen to my love when your beauty fades? Likewise, for any other transient quality. For Barrett Browning, her love is something that is simply there. It shines out from within towards the object of her love. It is as much a reflection of herself and her capacity for love as her loved one.
In the poem’s second sentence, “Let me count the ways,” we see elements reminiscent of the so-called “gratitude checklist,” widely recommended nowadays as a key to happiness. There has been a growing awareness in recent years that gratitude is a healthy and enlivening emotion, as well as an antidote to one of the most prevalent maladies of our time – entitlement. It has become popular for people to write “gratitude checklists” on a regular basis in order to increase their awareness of the good things they have, thereby improving their sense of well-being. In this regard as well, Barrett Browning was ahead of her time.
In the first eight lines (the octave), the poet is anchored in the present, and starts her inventory as one might measure some concrete object (its depth, breadth and height), but soon realizes that her love is so vast as to be out of sight and immeasurable. She then shifts her frame of reference and compares her love to:
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
Her love is not just an entertainment or embellishment in her life but rather a fundamental need, like other needs that, though crucial, can easily be overlooked because they are “most quiet,” like air and water and the internal space necessary for contemplation and meditation.
In the last two lines of the octave, the poet expresses two qualities she has observed in admirable men. They “strive for right” and “turn from praise.” It is with the same free and pure spirit that the poet embraces her love.
At the volta or transition between the first eight lines and the last six, Barrett Browning shifts from the present to the past. Her current love reminds her of the passion for what she has lost (“my old griefs”) and her childhood faith, as well as her disillusionment “with my lost saints.” Yet now she feels reconnected with those early wellsprings of love as she experiences a love that encompasses the “breath, smiles, tears, of all my life.” In her final line, referencing a belief in the afterlife, she anticipates that should God choose, her love might be even better after death.
How is that for a full-hearted declaration of love! What type of person is capable of feeling and expressing such adoration and who is deserving enough to be on the receiving end? Before we go on to seek the answers to these questions in the poet’s own life, let’s consider more broadly the role of verbal communication in relationships.
The 5 love languages
Author Gary Chapman in his best-selling book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, specifies five different ways in which love can be expressed and appreciated:
1. Quality time
3. Acts of service
4. Physical touch
5. Expressions of love
Chapman points out that different people appreciate these different forms of expression to different degrees, which is useful for couples to know if they are to achieve a loving relationship. For those relationships where words of love are appreciated by one or both parties, Barrett Browning’s famous sonnet might offer some helpful insights.
I should mention that even when showing love in ways #1-4 above, what you say and how you say it can either enhance or detract from your gesture of love. That is why we are taught to read the card before opening the gift. We learn that “It’s the thought that counts.” But how can we better know your thoughts than by hearing them expressed with the specificity of words. Imagine your partner gives you an “act of service” by taking your car to the car wash for you, brings it back and leaves it outside. At that point, your partner has then has a wide range of options as to what to say on entering the house – all the way from, “Your car is in the driveway, finally clean” to (after you express delight and surprise), “It felt so good to do that for you. You are always so considerate of others.”
In my experience, people in relationships often assume that their partners know how they are feeling or, more commonly, don’t give the matter enough thought. This can result in the other person feeling misunderstood, neglected or taken for granted. In my work with couples, as misunderstandings are clarified, I often hear, “Why didn’t you tell me? I’m not a mind reader.” With the help of therapy or experience, it is possible to move this question into the present tense, as in, “Please tell me what’s on your mind, I’m not a mind reader.” Or, better still, the same request without the “mind reader” part, which contains an element of sarcasm, that does nobody any good.
For those in a relationship who may be reading this chapter and feel as though their verbal communications could be improved, it may be an interesting exercise to read Barrett Browning’s poem (or any love poem that you both like), and see what feelings arise. It may also be useful to take turns saying to each other “Let me tell you how I love you.” Although she could hardly have anticipated it, Barrett Browning may actually turn out to be something of a couple therapist. Certainly, the young man I mentioned to you in the opening part of this blog found her many descriptions of her feelings to be a valuable guide as to how he could be more imaginative in letting his wife know how he loves her. You may be glad to hear that the couple is thriving.
A great poet and a great love story
Part of the magic of “How do I love thee?” comes from its structure. It is a beautiful example of the Petrarchan Sonnet, obeying all its rules: an initial octave followed by a sestet, with a volta (transition) to indicate the shift in tense; and a disciplined meter and rhyme scheme. These are difficult rules to implement and Barrett Browning’s success in doing so in this miniature art form, while at the same time producing a beautiful and deeply moving poem, illustrates the complexity and brilliance of this luminous poet’s mind. Let us consider some of the forces and circumstances that shaped the poet and this poem.
Elizabeth Barrett was the eldest of 12 children, born to an affluent English family in 1806. Her life was marked by extensive suffering, great joy and legendary success.
Her suffering arose from several sources, including lifelong illness, addiction, and an over-controlling (albeit engaged) father. So well known was her father’s controlling behavior that it became the focus of a famous play about her family called “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” Although a high-spirited child who loved riding horses, Elizabeth became ill at age 15 and suffered severe pains that required treatment with laudanum, an extract of opium, to which she became addicted. She later also developed a lung ailment.
A child prodigy, Elizabeth began writing poetry by about age 6, and continued writing poetry prolifically into adulthood. She read widely and became politically active, supporting the rights of women and the abolition of slavery. Her writing attracted the attention of Robert Browning, six years her junior, who initiated a correspondence with her, which turned into a courtship. They hid their growing relationship from her father, who disapproved of it. Nevertheless, independent of mind and spirit, Elizabeth eloped with Browning and, perhaps unsurprisingly, was disinherited by her father. Although saddened by the breach in her relationship with him, she went on to enjoy a happy marriage with Robert Browning, spending much of their time in Italy with their son. Elizabeth became ill in her mid-fifties for reasons that are unclear, and died peacefully in her husband’s arms. According to him, the last word she uttered was “Beautiful.”
“How do I love thee?” was originally written to Robert Browning, though Elizabeth attempted to conceal the personal nature of the poem by including it in a collection deceptively entitled “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” Despite its personal nature, Browning insisted that Elizabeth publish the poem for which she is now best known. The many ways in which Browning influenced Elizabeth’s life are reflected in this most famous of her poems. He loved her, recognized her genius rescued her from her father’s control, married her without consideration of her being disinherited, supported her work, had a child with her, and nursed her through her final illness. Such supportive behavior from husband would be exemplary in a 20th century marriage, but in the mid-1800s it must have been extremely rare. In Barrett Browning’s poem we see love as a force for transformation of the self. Rereading the poem in light of the extraordinary backstory that gave birth to and nurtured it, offers a beautiful example of the transformational power of love.
Finding your inner poet
A couple I know have been happily married for almost 50 years and on every anniversary the husband has written a love poem to his wife. She has kept them all in a special place befitting such precious gifts.
The husband is not a professional poet, so his gift of words (accompanied by flowers and other pretty things) made me wonder whether others among us might reinforce our connections with those we love by venturing into the realm of poetry to express our feelings. This idea gained strength recently by a love poem posted on a Facebook page (PoetryRx), which I started recently. Although the poet, Vincent Argiro, is also not to my knowledge a professional writer, the poem drew wide applause from members of the group. Vincent has kindly agreed to having me share it here:
Breaks heaven open
Germinates seeds In the loam of my heart
Launches a million ships To carry the dreams of angels Earthward
It occurs to me that it might be both interesting and fun to try and craft a short poem to someone you love for Valentine’s Day. If you would like to take up the challenge, I have set out a few suggestions illustrated with some famous examples below. If your loved one likes the poem and gives her or his permission, feel free to send it to me at PoetryRx (at) normanrosenthal.com, and I will publish my favorites on this blog.
A few general guidelines
(I will give you the opening lines of some illustrative poems and you can look up the rest online):
1) Remember, love is not just a state of mind but a bodily experience as well. In poetry, the heart is the organ most frequently mentioned.
Here are some examples:
I carry your heart with me (I carry it in
my heart) I am never without it (anywhere
I go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
—E.E. Cummings, 1952
My true-love hath my heart and I have his,
By just exchange one for the other given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss;
There never was a bargain better driven.
—Sir Philip Sidney, (1554-1586)
2) Compare your love to something beautiful
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
—Robert Burns, (1759-1796)
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
William Shakespeare, (1564-1616)
3) Tell what you would like to do for her or him
I will make you broaches and toys for your delight
Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
— Robert Louis Stevenson, (1850-1894)
4) Remind him or her of a special shared occasion
I remember a wonderful moment
As before my eyes you appeared,
Like a vision, fleeting, momentary,
Like a spirit of the purest beauty.
— Alexander Pushkin, (1799-1837)
Along the hard crest of the snowdrift
to my white, mysterious house,
both of us quiet now,
keeping silent as we walk.
— Anna Akhmatova, (1889-1966)
5) Remind her or him of the strength of your bond
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
— Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)
Remember, you don’t have to make your writing fancy. Just let it come from the heart. The great American poet Mary Oliver, who died recently, described the process well, in the following lines:
It doesn’t have to be
The blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
How wise. Words are like a doorway – a doorway through which we can step to connect more closely with the ones we love.
Happy Valentine’s Day
Your engagement is appreciated!
In the “write a comment” section below I encourage you to share comments about this blog post, as well as to leave your favorite poem(s) and what they mean to you. I will monitor this and re-post selected favorite poems on my blog and the Poetry Rx Facebook group.