Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ details the haunting compulsions and marriage of a murderous bridegroom and his innocent bride.
For those familiar with Atwood’s work, the title of this piece immediately connects it to one of her best-known novels, ‘The Robber Bride.’ That novel and this poem were inspired by a story from the Brother’s Grimm titled “The Robber Bridegroom.” It tells the tale of a monstrous groom who lures women into his lair and devours them. In her novel, Atwood alters the details significantly, while still paying homage to the original story. The Brother’s Grimm original story was published in 1812.
Explore The Robber Bridegroom
In the first part of this poem, the speaker builds up suspense by describing the actions and desires of the “bridegroom” from the title. He doesn’t want to but he can’t help killing the women he’s around. He’d rather have relationships such as those he sees other men having, but whenever he gets near a woman she doesn’t see him for who he is and what he can provide. This is something that angers him more than he can stand.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker brings in another element, the bridegroom’s new wife. She’s lost, trying to make her way through the confusing forest to him. She’s ignorant of who he is or what he’s doing, something that makes the suggestion of her approach all the more suspenseful. The poem ends without Atwood resolving what happens to her.
Atwood engages with themes of violence, desire, and innocence in ‘The Robber Bridegroom.’ These, in addition to marriage and deceit, help to define the story of the bride and her bridegroom, as well as the latter’s inner darkness. The poet, and her narrator, do not flinch away from detailing the bridegroom’s desire to inflict harm on the women in his life, something that makes the approach of his bride all the more sinister.
Structure and Form
‘The Robber Bridegroom’ by Margaret Atwood is a twenty-three stanza poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not follow a single rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, as should always be noted, this does not mean that the poem is without rhyme or structure entirely. There are a few examples of half-rhyme, for example of consonance found in line one with “like,” “kill,” and “like.” Or, “singing” and “dreaming” in lines twenty-two and twenty-three.
Atwood makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Robber Bridegroom.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, caesura, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, is a common type of repetition that occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Why” and “women” in the third line and “believes” and “bring” in line eight.
Enjambment is another common technique poets use. It occurs when the writer cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines eleven and twelve.
Caesurae are pauses in the middle of lines. For example, that which occurs in lines one, three, and five. These pauses are created through punctuation. It’s also possible to create caesurae through pauses in the metrical pattern.
He would like not to kill. He would like
what he imagines other men have,
instead of this red compulsion. Why do the women
but they scream too much and make him angry.
In the first lines of ‘The Robber Bridegroom,’ the speaker begins by making a striking statement that’s meant to work as a hook to bring the reader into the poem and inspire them to continue reading. She states that “He would like not to kill.” At this point, it’s not clear who the speaker is or who “he” is, although the title might give the reader some hint.
The “he” in these lines is someone who enjoys murdering young women. It is a compulsion that he can’t control, but knows that he should. Why, he wonders to himself, do women “fail him and die badly?” It’s not his intent, at least in his most clear-headed moments, to kill women painfully or violently. In these lines, Atwood’s speaker references “fingers,” a direct connection to one of the most striking and memorable images from the original story.
The man expresses an attitude that’s recognizably masochistic and not unusual for those suffering from violent compulsions towards women. He expressed the belief that if these women just gave him a chance, they would come to lose him for “his skill and the final pleasure” he could give them. The bridegroom blames the women for not acting appropriately and angering him.
Then he goes for the soul, rummaging
in their flesh for it, despotic with self-pity,
in the watery moonlight, where his young bride,
In the next lines of ‘The Robber Bridegroom,’ the speaker continues describing the process the Bridegroom goes through when he takes a woman’s life. He “goes for the soul,” unsatisfied with simply taking a woman’s life. He digs for it, determined to rip it out of their flesh. It’s in the following lines that the poet includes some details that help the reader understand who this person is/was and what makes them act the way they do. The narrator mentions “his young bride” in the following lines.
pale but only a little frightened,
her hands glimmering with his own approaching
dreaming of him as he is.
The bride is at a mental and (temporarily) physical distance from the horrific violence he’s caused and is causing at that moment. As he kills women, this young woman “gropes her way towards him / along the obscure path” (another allusion to the original story). She’s ignorant of his true nature. Atwood mentions the “white stones” she moves alone as she makes her way towards him. These are likely used as another way to emphasize her innocence and lack of knowledge about what’s happened to other women and may happen to her. The poem ends without a resolution, but if one takes the original story into consideration, there’s a chance that someone is going to protect her.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ should consider reading some of Margaret Atwood’s other poems. For example:
- ‘Half Hanged Mary’ — describes the life and death of Mary Webster, a supposed ancestor of Margaret Atwood, who was hanged in the 1680s for witchcraft.
- ‘Siren Song’ — published in 1974, the poem describes the sirens from Greek mythology, their song, and why they’re singing.
- ‘Crow Song’ — a satirical poem that depicts humanity through crow-related imagery.