The Ache of Marriage

Denise Levertov


Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov was an English poet.

She was the winner of the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry.

The Ache of Marriage by Denise Levertov explores how difficult marriage can be, with Levertov arguing it is a ‘joy[less]’, painful affair. Levertov examines a relationship going through a bad time, with the experience being something to suffer through, rather than enjoy.

The Ache of Marriage by Denise Levertov


Summary of The Ache of Marriage

The Ache of Marriage by Denise Levertov begins with echoing the title of the poem, using a colon to present the idea that everything that comes next is an explanation of the ‘ache’ that comprises marriage. A deep bodily pain, the ‘ache’ of pushing through each day in an unhappy marriage is the central exploration of this poem. Although they search for companionship and to rekindle their love, they are unable to do so, falling deeper into despair. The poem does not have a positive resolution, with Levertov finishing by returning to the ‘ache’ she feels from being in a loveless marriage.

You can read the full poem here.



Levertov splits the poem into five stanzas, with a range of line lengths. The first stanza is comprised of solely one line, reiterating the title. The second and third stanzas each measure three lines, while the fourth measures four lines. The final stanza of the poem, echoing the content of ‘two by two’ in reference to the ‘ark’, is two lines long. The disrupted and changing structure of the poem could be understood as a representation of the marriage Levertov is describing, the precarious and unhappy nature of their relationship extrapolated into the structural form of the poem. Similarly, the changing structure could reflect Levertov’s attempt to fix her relationship, trying to alter things to make their relationship happier. Yet, as we know from the final lines of the poem, this is to no avail, Levertov finding no way to restore happiness to her marriage.


The Ache of Marriage Analysis

Stanza One

The ache of marriage:

The poem begins by repeating the title, The Ache of Marriage being the central concern of the poem. By repeating the title as the first line, Levertov is reiterating its importance. Alike the relationship, the poem is cyclic, repeating phrases and ideas in a monotonous circle.

If we examine the word ‘ache’, more is revealed about the state of their relationship. The word connotes a sense of a deep, slight, throbbing pain. There is something silent about this quality of pain, not enough to cry out about, but enough to constantly be on the mind of the inflicted. It is an uncomfortable feeling, with Levertov suggesting that her marriage has become something deeply unsettling for her. Although unhappy, Levertov also suggests that an ‘ache’ is not enough pain to complain about, perhaps insinuating the idea that sometimes people in unhappy marriages continue on, despite not being satisfied, as its easier to bear it than walk away.

The use of a colon within the first line of The Ache of Marriage suggests that everything that comes afterward is an explanation of this claim, with Levertov depicting what it is like to be in a loveless marriage.


Stanza Two

thigh and tongue, beloved,
it throbs in the teeth

The assonance that carries across ‘thighs and tongue, beloved’ is interrupted by plosive sounds ’t’ and ‘b’ that disrupt the flow of this line. In doing so, Levertov initiates a beautiful harmony, which is swiftly derailed by the plosives. Levertov could be using sound to represent the path of her marriage, with the happiness they once had being disrupted by the ‘ache’ that began to set in, unhappiness beginning to take over. This is furthered by the use of caesura, ‘tongue, beloved,’ disrupting the meter of the line and causing a breakdown of metrical flow, representing Levertov’s failing marriage.

The classification of the marriage as an ‘it’ gives the act a strange, almost alien quality. The relationship they are now in seems foreign to them, something they have ended up in without meaning to. They are unhappy, the unfamiliar atmosphere incited by the ‘it’ furthering their sense of displacement within their own marriage.

Levertov enacts images of bodily pain, ’throbs in the teeth’ building on the semantics of sickness and ‘ache’ through the ‘throbs’ that cease to stop. This sense of discomfort is extended by the reoccurring ’t’ throughout this line, cutting through the meter with the harsh consonant. Both through content and sound, Levertov presents the tumultuous and loveless relationship.


Stanza Three

We look for communion
each and each

Levertov argues that she ‘look[ed] for communion’, trying to find companionship and a sense of community in her difficult time. Yet, she finds no solace in turning to others, ‘turned away’ without help.

The focus on ‘each and each’, the divisive ‘and’ coming between the two parties could be understood as a spatial representation of their emotional distance within the relationship. They no longer have a connection, just two people who are pushing through each day of their relationship in the hope that things will one day work out okay.


Stanza Four

It is leviathan and we
not to be known outside it

Levertov uses the metaphor of marriage being a ‘leviathan’ that is slowly digesting them. They are in ‘its belly’, consumed while ‘looking for joy’, Levertov suggesting that they are in an almost inescapable pact. She does not know how to get out of her unhappy marriage, with the powerful metaphor of being digested reflecting the idea that her very sense of self is being stripped away from continuing while unhappy.

They even reduce their expectations of the relationship, saying that they will look for ‘some joy’, anything at all to act as a beacon of hope for their unhappy lives.


Stanza Five

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

The final stanza, going ‘two by two’ measures only two lines. The separation across these lines could be Levertov representing the two disconnected members of this marriage, existing together yet wholly apart. She draws upon the image of the ‘ark’, perhaps seeking complete destruction from which they can begin to rebuild.

The final image of the poem returns to the ‘ache’ of marriage, Levertov solidifying the idea that she won’t be able to get rid of this deep sense of pain. Marriage has caused her nothing but loss, booming further and further distanced from her loved one while she struggles to continue each day as if everything were okay. The ‘ache’ of marriage continues.

Jack Limebear Poetry Expert
Jack is undertaking a degree in World Literature and joined the Poem Analysis team in 2019. Poetry is the intersection of his greatest passions, languages and literature, with his focus on translation bridging the gap.

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