Words for a Marriage

For Anna & Jim, December 1985

I. Possession

A clearing in the great northern forest:
a new house of logs, mud and thatch.
The brideprice paid,
he stands in the doorway,
waiting for her to arrive.

A villa on top of a brown hill, above the sea:
her time has come,
she makes her suitors stand in a line,
at the bottom of the steps,
like gladiators, cutching their fists like weapons.
Which one will serve her best?

The metaphors of marketplace and property
clash like iron swords in our ears,
yet make me wonder
about the truths that lie inside them.

(Part I notes)

II. Pledging

Here are three ways to promise:

Seven youths and seven maidens
for the Minotaur,
hostages for the loyalty of a city--
something of great value, given before.

Between Winter's solstice and the new year,
the ritual by the formal oak,
with the miseltoe.
We do what is always done.

One to another, the two
speak words as true as a tree,
solid as the trunk;
as full of meaning
as the new green gleam of spring.

(Part II, notes)

III. Joining

One forms from several,
Two strands are tied together.

A yoke units you,
and makes the load seem lighter,
carrying logs from the forest.

Coming into the clearing,
a new pattern leaps to the eye,
a new constellation appears in the sky.
We see it, and begin a new myth.

(Part III, notes)

IV. Sharing

Partners partake, each taking parts:

As an ice age ends
in a cave,
mates share meat, over a fire.

By the hearth, the growers of grain
await the baking bread
which they will take together.

Before the sailing of the ships,
one lot, drawn for two,
decides the fate of both.

(Part IV, notes)

V. Parenting

The last image is the first image:
The first syllable,
the matrix of language;
the first giving, the womb of action and of love.
parent and child,
pointing beyond
possessing, pledging, joining, sharing,
to another poem.

(Part V., notes)


This poem is a series of images based on the root meanings which underlie the language we use to talk about marriage.  The words we use to speak of things like birth, marriage and death reveal the basic meanings these events have for us.

Part I, Possessing:  Husband=house dweller; wife=woman; marry=to provide with a young woman.  Nuptial=the taking of a husband; bridegroom=manservant of bride.

Part II, Pledging:  Wed=a give a pledge, usually in advance; wedlock=the state of having given a pledge.  Espouse (also spouse)=to make a formal, solemn or ritual promise.  Betroth=to promise in truth, firmly, solidly ("tree" comes from the same root).

Part III, Joining:  Conjugal=joined together ("yoke" has the same root); united=made into one; also colloquial: "tie the knot," "the tie that binds," "hitched."

Part IV, Sharing:  Partner=sharer of parts; mate=one with whom food (esp. meat) is shared; companion=one with whom bread is eaten; consort=one who shares the same fate or "lots" (=sorts).

Part V, Parenting:  Matrimony=the state of motherhood (mother, mater from the infant's first word: "ma").

Copyright 1998 by Robert Elliott

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