This poem, A Married State by Katherine Philips, is quite shocking for its time period. Philips lived in the seventeenth century, and in her time and culture, it was very uncommon for a woman to remain unmarried. The speaker may or may not symbolize the author herself, but the words of this particular poem seem to represent how Philips felt about her own marriage. Katherine was married to a man who was thirty-eight, and she was only sixteen. This marriage was arranged by her step-father. Thus, one can easily see why Philips would view marriage as a burden rather than a joy. The speaker in A Married State does not accuse her husband of being mean or hateful, but rather claims that she believes even the best of marriages must be worse than the single life. Therefore, it would appear that the speaker of this poem and the author are one and the same (The Life of Katherine Philips).
A Married State Analysis
A married state affords but little ease
The best of husbands are so hard to please.
The opening lines of A Married State by Katherine Philips reveals a rather negative outtake on marriage. While the majority of young girls dream about their wedding day, few think about the realities of what marriage really means. Many poems were written about love. They contain romanticized notions of marriage. These opening lines contradict the theory that marriage is happily ever after. In fact, right away the speaker lets the readers know that it is not easy being married. She claims that being a married woman “affords but little ease”. She also makes the proclamation that even the best of husbands cannot make marriage easy, for they “are so hard to please”. It becomes clear at this point in A Married State that the speaker believes that her job in marriage is the please her husband, and she clearly believes that he is hard to please.
This in wives’ careful faces you may spell
Though they dissemble their misfortunes well.
With these lines, the speaker reveals that this unfortunate circumstance is one that is a well-kept secret. She suggests that new wives hide their disappointment, and hide it well. She also suggests that marriage is in fact a “misfortune”. However, she also implies that the discontent can be seen on the faces of wives. If only people would look more closely, they would see that the faces of wives are “careful”. The speaker does not reveal exactly what she means by the use of the word “careful” to describe the faces of the wives, but readers can gather from the context of A Married State, that the wives are very careful never to let the disappointment show on their faces.
A virgin state is crowned with much content;
It’s always happy as it’s innocent.
In these lines, the speaker contrasts the state of marriage with the state of a virgin. In Phillips’s time, a respectable young lady was either a virgin, or she was married. Thus, the speaker in this poem assumes as much and proclaims that virgin girls experience more satisfaction than that of their married counterparts.
No blustering husbands to create your fears;
No pangs of childbirth to extort your tears;
With these lines, the speaker explains her reasons for making such a claim as she made in lines five and six. She explains that “blustering husbands” actually “create…fears” in their wives. She also goes on to explain the “pangs of childbirth”. The speaker does not mention childbirth as miraculous and joyful as many women do. Rather, she presents the other side of this experience and paints a picture of a woman in the pangs of childbirth, crying tears of pain. The use of the word “your” in line eight allows the reader to step into this position. A Married State, in fact, seems to be written for the sake of virgins who pine for marriage. Here, the speaker explains that they will live in fear of their husbands, and will have to experience the pain of childbirth which will “extort [their] tears”. She does not mention any of the joys of childbirth or marriage. Perhaps this is because she has not experienced joy in either marriage or childbirth, or perhaps this is because she believes that virgins have heard enough about the joys and not enough about the pain and the fear. For whatever reason, the speaker leaves out any trace of joy in marriage or childbirth and focuses on the physical and emotional pain that both bring about.
No children’s cries for to offend your ears;
Few worldly crosses to distract your prayers:
In these lines, the speaker continues to describe marriage and the result of marriage: motherhood. She does not speak of the joy that her children bring to her. Rather, she tells those young virgins that if they remain single, they will never have to hear “children’s cries to offend [their] ears”. Then, the speaker references the Bible in her pleas with virgins to remain single. She claims that without a husband, there are “few worldly crosses to distract your prayers”. This inadvertently corresponds to 1 Corinthians 7:8 which says, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” It would seem that the speaker is only able to understand the truth of those words when it is too late.
Thus are you freed from all the cares that do
Attend on matrimony and a husband too.
In these lines, the speaker continues on the theme of the freedom that comes with the single life. She explains that an unmarried woman is “freed from all the cares that do attend on matrimony and a husband too”. Thus, rather than viewing marriage as something to be sought after, the speaker views it as something to be given up in favor of the freedom offered by the single life.
Therefore Madam, be advised by me
Turn, turn apostate to love’s levity,
Until this point in A Married State, the speaker has pointed out all of the difficulties of marriage, but she had not outrightly advised against it. Therefore, the reader could still wonder whether the speaker would shift tone and begin to expound upon the blessings of marriage. She does not. In these lines, she explicitly advises her single counterparts against marrying. She blatantly asks them to “turn apostate to love’s levity”, which means to turn against the idea that love is a frivolous or light matter. She asks the single women in her audience to renounce love and to give up the idea of marriage in favor of the single life of a virgin.
Suppress wild nature if she dare rebel.
There’s no such thing as leading apes in hell.
With these closing lines, the speaker leaves the reader wondering what her exact meaning really is. It is clear that she calls her single counterparts to suppress any sexual feeling that may arise within them. She calls sexual desire “wild nature” and pleads with virgins to suppress her “if she dare rebel”. The last line of A Married State is vague. Reader’s wonder what the “apes” refer to and why it matters that there is no “leading [them] in hell”. It is possible the speaker views marriage as leading her husband, and then claims that there is no marriage in hell, and so there will be no need to lead her husband there. It is also possible that “ape” refers to the wild sexual desire she referred to in line fifteen. In this case, the last line would mean that there is no sex in hell.
It is interesting that she uses the term “hell” rather than “heaven” for it would seem that both would make her point. After all, the Bible does say that there is no marriage of man and wife in heaven. It is also implied that there is no sexual intercourse in heaven. Therefore, it is possible that the speaker intends to proclaim not only her contempt for marriage but also her lack of belief in God. She must conclude that this will result in her going to hell, if there is such a place. Therefore, she ends her poem by stating that her single counterparts should refrain from marrying because it will only cause discontent on earth, and because there is no marriage in hell, the place she believes she will be going if there is such a thing as an afterlife.