The Poetry Place

How do I love thee?

This follows on from a discussion in Teachit's Staffroom about Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem. At first glance this seems a simple poem: a heartfelt expresion of love. On closer examination you then discover that there are a number of allusions you don't fully understand and that your students understand even less.  Once beyond that, though, you realise that,  underneath it all, the writer is simply singing out 'I love you lots!' 

Don't let your students become enmeshed in the spotting of features or the retelling of biography. Some background is useful. For example, the sonnet form often contains a little change of gear round about the ninth line (does that happen here?); there is indeed a lot of repetition and alliteration; the poet was both of her time and managed to break out of it - and the Browning's story is well worth knowing.

However, having done the ground work, does the poem speak to us still?  Given its popularity in anthologies and at weddings, it seems to.  Why?  Compare it with other love poems which you will find on the internet.  How does it differ, let me count the ways...

It seems, for the most part, to avoid being merely sentimental or, as your students might say, cheesy.  (Soppy, we might say.)  How does she manage that?  Because there is a strain of seriousness throughout?

Another feature is the lack of any information about the object of her affection. (That makes it perfect for anyone to make use of, of course - perhaps another reason for its enduring popularity.) It is very abstract and that usually leads to a rather banal and pale kind of expression.  We don't get that feeling here, which is another tribute to the writer's skill.

I would recommend some readings / performances to bring out the quality of the poem: its strength, its assurance, its no-messing-about joy. Look out, Robert, this woman is hot for you!  (Fortunately, he seemed up to the challenge!)  How does a male reading the poem affect the way we respond to it?  Can it be read quietly, dreamily?  Can it be declaimed almost angrily?  Try changing the 'you' to 'him' or 'her'. Imagine she is responding to her bully of a father.  How might the tone change during the course of the poem?

Having done this (and perhaps made some recordings) ask students to compose a few lines of their own.  If they are shy about expressing love for someone of their own age, let them admire their cat or dog or tortoise, or their grandparent.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love the way you jump up when I come in the door;
I love your lolling tongue, the way your tail beats on the floor...

See also 'How Do I Love Thee' revisited.


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