Romantic Language Comparison: How do I Love Thee? and Sonnet 116
Both ‘How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ explore the ideas of love and romance in the traditional form of a sonnet. Whereas Browning writes about the intense love she felt towards her husband-to-be in Sonnet 43, which was part of a series of sonnets written in secret, Shakespeare depicts what he believes the true qualities of love to be in a reflective attempt to define and understand what it is in its purest, and somewhat most idealized, form.
Both Browning and Shakespeare present love in an overtly romanticized manner, employing enjambment to create flowing rhythms which suggest the boundlessness of their love, and the continual joy it brings. Shakespeare metaphorically proposes that love ‘is an ever-fixed mark’ which ‘looks on tempests, and is never shaken’. This use of sea imagery illustrates Shakespeare’s belief that true love is immortal, ‘ever-fixed’, and once established can never be lost. The praising tone indicates that he strongly believes love defies all ‘impediments’, thus insinuating that it can and will survive the most severe of obstacles, even a ‘tempest’. Shakespeare perhaps intentionally draws our attention to the line ‘o no; it is an ever-fixed mark’ by making it only 9 syllables; the shortest of the whole sonnet. This particular variation in meter, along with the use of the exclamatory ‘o’, highlights Shakespeare’s conviction that love is eternal, which is the overriding message of ‘Sonnet 116.’ Browning similarly conveys her belief in everlasting love, adopting the repetition of ‘I love thee’ to reinforce her utter devotion to and complete infatuation with her beloved. She suggests that she loves him ‘to the depth and breadth and height [her] soul can reach’, demonstrating the spiritual level of her love and how it will continue ‘after death’. The internal rhyme of ‘depth’ and ‘breadth’ forges a natural rhythm, embodying how pure and preordained their relationship is, and also serving to create a sense of harmony and balance within the line, complementing the equality of their love. This idea is similarly explored in Anne Bradstreet’s ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’, which declares ‘that when we live no more we may live ever,’ which emphasizes the indestructible nature of love. All three poets appear convinced that perfect love is imperishable and will endure ‘even to the edge of doom.’
Furthermore, both Shakespeare and Browning utilize the sonnet form in order to further idealize and elevate their perceptions of love to higher levels. However, whilst Browning’s words are aptly encapsulated by a variation of the Petrarchan sonnet form, which involves an ABBA, ABBA, CD, CD, CD rhyme scheme, Shakespeare’s sonnet uses an ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG rhyme scheme. Browning’s choice causes us to focus upon the differences between the octave and the sestet, whilst Shakespeare draws our attention to the final rhyming couplet. The octave of ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ expresses the extent to which she loves her future husband, ‘to the level of every day’s most quiet need’ and ‘by sun and candle-light’, which illustrates her pure devotion to him and her love’s ceaselessness. She clearly will love him by night and day and will provide for his every ‘need’. The sestet, on the other hand, draws analogies between the intensity of love she felt while writing the poem and the love she experienced earlier in her life, stating that she loves him with her ‘childhood’s faith’ and the ‘breath, smiles, tears, of all [her] life’. This raises her love for him to religious levels, suggesting that she loves him just as she had loved her ‘faith’ and the ‘lost saints’ of her childhood. Moreover, the cumulative effect of ‘breath, smiles, tears’ depicts her love as all-consuming, suggesting that she will give everything to him and remain loyal, even through difficult times. This selflessness draws parallels with Robert Burns’ ‘A Red, Red Rose’, in which he expresses his utter devotion to his love, whom he will always be there for ‘tho’ it were ten-thousand mile’, which emphasizes how he will do anything for her. Whilst Browning and Burns are evidently deeply in love with their respective partners, Shakespeare explicitly appears in love with love itself as opposed to a person. The final rhyming couplet asserts that if all he has said about love thus far is ‘error and upon me proved’, he ‘never writ, nor no man ever loved’, reaching a conviction that love is immortal and has the ability to defy all else. The initial sense of assurance and security that these words elicit could be questioned upon further examination, however, as the alliterative ‘n’ sound creates a negative undertone and the half rhyme of ‘proved’ and ‘loved’ could perhaps be representative of his desperation to believe what he is writing. The incompleteness of the rhyme could suggest that deep down he is not entirely convinced that his words are realistically true.
Tucker Brooke says Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ is a poem ‘which has about it no strangeness whatever except the strangeness of perfection’, notably regarding the predominant use of iambic pentameter, which he often favored and which is also embraced by Browning. Both poets suggest that their love will endure and the use of iambic pentameter reinforces this theme by creating a measured certainty, reflecting their assurance in love. Browning utilizes this meter when claiming ‘I shall but love thee better after death’, highlighting the importance of the belief in Christianity and the after-life in the Victorian society she lived in, which illustrates her hope that ‘if God choose’ her love will only continue to grow ‘after death’. She seems to think that only God’s power over the body and soul in death is more powerful than the love she has for her husband-to-be, but God willing her love will be eternal. Shakespeare similarly believes that ‘love alters not with his brief hours and weeks’, depicting his confidence in the unmovable nature of genuine and perfect love, accentuated by the use of iambic pentameter which again creates a measured and certain rhythm. These references to the passage of time and love’s ability to triumph it are also used by Donne in ‘The Sun Rising’, in which he declares that love knows ‘no hours, days, months, which are the rags of time’. This is indicative of his belief that love is immortal and exists out of time, no matter what ‘hour, day’ or ‘month’ it is. Donne is clearly exploring the philosophy of love, as a Metaphysical poet, minimizing the importance of ‘the rags of time’ in order to understand what love truly is. This is more similar to Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ than Browning’s ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ which focuses on her feelings of being in love as opposed to what love actually is, perhaps influenced by the differing periods in which they were writing.
To conclude, it is apparent that both Shakespeare and Browning utilize the sonnet form, along with a number of structural techniques, in order to aptly convey their feelings towards love and its power. Whilst Browning adheres to the sonnet’s traditional purpose of being a love poem about another person, Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ strays from this in that it is about being in love with love itself. Nonetheless, both poets present an incredibly romanticized view of love, suggesting that love is both eternal and all-consuming.
 Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Tucker Brooke. London: Oxford UP: 1936
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Both ‘How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ explore the ideas of love and romance in the traditional form of a sonnet. […]