Can we love “better”?

My love of poetry is hardly a secret. Poetry has a way of filling the gaps in life where the normal way of looking and talking about something fails.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Recently, I reread some poems by the 19th-century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She is half of one of the great literary love stories as her poetry won over another poet, Robert Browning, and they left England to live in Italy since her father disapproved of the marriage. Actually, her father disinherited any of his 12 children that married — he was clearly a little “off.”

Almost everyone knows the opening of her Sonnet 43 since it is used for laughs and sometimes with actual sincerity: “How do I love thee, let me count the ways.” If that is all you know of it, please read the poem below — it is truly a beautiful piece of writing.

It is the last lines of the poem that make me bring this up in a blog on grief. She ends with:

I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Browning was reluctant to print her “personal” poems so she published them as if she had translated them from Portuguese poetry.

The first part is simply one of the fullest ways to express your love for someone. To love them “with the breath, smile, tears, of all my life!” In other words, her love is shown in her very act of living, both the smile and the tears, indeed, every breath of her life. It is not a love that appears only when life is happy, but a true love that is seen in all of life’s moments.

The final half, “I shall but love thee better after death,” is the part more open to interpretation. It could be interpreted that when reunited after death, we can love better. We could also read it, as I do with a son who has preceded me in death, that I love him even better after he has died.

Without spending too much time delving into the poem, which admittedly I am holding myself back from doing, the idea that we can love someone better at all is interesting. We think of love as without boundaries and thus without end — the agape love of Christ — but I think we do get “better” at love as we get “better” in our faith.

I’ve been married to my wonderful wife, Mary Ann, for 34 years. Do I love her better today then I did at the beginning? Yes, because my love is now stronger with an understanding of her built on 34 years of marriage and for the experiences we have gone through in that time, both good and bad. [Note: I’m not asking her to confirm this — I’ve learned that in 34 years as well!] As my children grwo I hope I can love them better by understanding how to meet their needs better. And my faith in Christ, which is my relationship with Christ, gets better as I work to strengthen that relationship.

The important distinction here is “better” is not “more.” I’m never more overwhelmed by love than I have been sitting in the quiet of the night rocking one of my infant children back to sleep. I cannot love more than that. But I can love better.

Infant Oliver with Derek
Oliver, about a month old, with Derek

Oliver is gone and I can never love him more than I did when he was alive. The question is, can I love him better? My youngest son no longer needs me. I cannot anticipate his joys and sorrows and present my love to him. However, our relationship continues to grow as I grow. My time in Oliver’s presence is over, but my love for Oliver never wanes. In fact, it grows stronger not because there is “more” love, but because my love is “better.” I’m finding new ways to honor him and hold him close and that does not end because he is gone.

Now, perceptive reader, you may have noticed I missed one part of those final lines by Barrett Browning. “And, if God choose.” 

Barrett Browning was a Christian who took her theology and poetry seriously. As she said, “Christ’s religion is essentially poetry – poetry glorified.” So, when she says “And, if God choose” she is not simply throwing out a poetic line. She means it is up to God to decide if she’ll be able to love better after death. Like other parts of the poem, we can interpret this many ways. But let me offer that since Barrett Browning sees love as originating in God, it is by God’s choosing that we love at all. Fortunately, God does choose to love us (John 3:16) and so Browning can rest assured that she’ll love even better after death.

Returning to the first way we can interpret that line, “I shall but love thee better after death,” we find we can accept both readings. Because surely, after our own deaths and in the presence of God, how could our ability to love not be better. 

Sonnet 43: How do I love thee, let me count the ways
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 everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
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.

4 thoughts on “Can we love “better”?

  1. Derek  I leave a      comment but not sure if they post.

    Like

    1. Hi Mom,
      They do post, but I have to approve it first so it depends when I see it. Thanks for reading!

      Like

  2. W. David McNeill October 1, 2019 — 4:41 pm

    Friend Derek,
    I call you that knowing that many years have sped by since we last communicated (shortly after our freshman year). I see death as a separation, not termination, in a relationship. I have confidence – although only God knows for certain- that many of the loved ones I have mourned are but a heartbeat away. When our ever-loving Father has determined that my time here is ended, I will reconnect, to use modern vernacular, with those who have gone before me and await the arrival of those I’ve left behind. I wish you Peace (John 14:27) more than anything.

    Like

    1. Friend Dave! So good to hear your voice after so many years. Thanks for reading my ramblings and I share your confidence that someday I will hug my little boy again, although only God knows. But I can hope. May peace be with you as well!

      Like

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