How Do I Love Thee ? 

Whoso loves, believes the impossible.
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were two gifted poets destined to produce some of the most fascinating correspondence in English literature. Robert Browning had never set eyes on Elizabeth Barrett, and they knew nothing of each other beyond their published works. Both were well known in their own right and admired and respected each other’s works. This admiration served as a catalyst when Robert wrote Elizabeth a fan letter on January 10, 1845:


            I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett—and this is no offhand complimentary letter that I shall write, whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius, and there a graceful and natural end of the thing. Since that day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me, for in that first flush of delight I thought I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration---perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of hereafter!---but nothing comes of it all---so into me has gone, and part of me it has become…in this addressing myself to you---your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart---and I love you too.


Elizabeth was then thirty-nine, in poor health, and seldom left the house. Her father, who forbade any of his children to marry, dominated her.

Because of her father’s objections, they corresponded in secrecy. Their correspondence was so prolific that it fills two thick volumes. Elizabeth recorded their courtship, starting from their initial contact, in her famous Sonnets from the Portuguese. They encompass all the human emotions including happiness, regret, confidence and always love.

In May, 1845, Elizabeth finally allowed Robert to visit her. They then met secretly once a week. In September she wrote, “You have touched me more profoundly that I thought even you could have touched me…Henceforward I am yours for everything but to do you harm.”

They continued to meet for another year and corresponded almost every day, sometimes twice a day. After refusing his overtures, she was finally won over by his letters and visits, and they became lovers.

Robert urged her to marry him and move to Italy. Elizabeth was reluctant but after much thought agreed. Knowing that her father would object to her marrying, Robert and Elizabeth married on September 12, 1846, and a week later they left England for Italy, first to Pisa, then Florence, then to their eventual home, Casa Guidi.

She never saw her father again, and her father never forgave her. All the letters she wrote to him were returned unopened.

Were it not for this relationship, the world would probably never be able to enjoy words such as these:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth, 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, and 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 breadth,
Smiles, tears of all my life ! --- And, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Lillian Kew
(from Chicken Soup for the Couple's Soul)