‘The Arnolfini Marriage’ by Paul Durcan is based on one of Jan van Eyck’s most famous paintings: The Arnolfini Portrait (also known as The Arnolfini Marriage or Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife). The painting was completed in 1434.
It depicts a couple standing in the center of a bedroom, holding hands. The wife is wearing a vibrant green dress and a white headless while her husband is in all black. Their clothes are clearly expensive, likely make of fur, sable, and silk. Van Eyck chose to include numerous details that have piqued the interest of viewers for centuries. They include a small dog at the couple’s feet, a mirror in the background (in which the couple is reflected along with the artist), a chandelier (that also alludes to their wealth).
The poem is separated into eight stanzas of three lines, known as tercets. It does not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are instances of half and full rhyme within, and at the ends, of lines.
Summary of The Arnolfini Marriage
The poem begins with the speakers telling the reader that they are not allowed access to the couple’s private life. Despite how open the picture is, some things need to remain a secret. They continue on, professing their faith in the artist to do justice to their portrait.
The next section of ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’ focuses on the “we” in the relationship. They love the fact that they are able to be with and support one another. They challenge the reader to see if they have a similar dynamic in their own lives.
You can listen to the full poem here.
Analysis of The Arnolfini Marriage
Stanzas One and Two
We are the Arnolfinis.
Do not think you may invade
The most erotic portrait ever made,
Because we have faith in the artist
In the first stanza of the poem the speakers, (the husband and wife depicted in the painting), push back against the viewer/reader. One of the most interesting aspects of the Arnolfini painting is the insight it provides for contemporary art lovers. One feels as though they are really looking into the lives of two wealthy Dutch citizens in the 1400s.
It is this curiosity, to peer into the Arnolfini home, that speakers are pushing back against. They state very bluntly and clearly that they don’t want their privacy invaded.
The placement of the bed in the room might suggest to some that the relationship is overtly sexual. In reality, the room is a reception area, meant for speaking with guests–nothing more. But, to a contemporary viewer, it is so discreet one might not even consider it. The Arnolfini’s, back in the 15th century, would’ve felt very differently.
The speaker says (perhaps even a little sarcastically) that it is “The most erotic portrait ever made”. Despite this fact, and the risk the two are taking, they’re willing to have “faith in the artist” to complete something they’re happy with. Enjambment is used in the third line, meaning the reader goes down to the third stanza to finish the thought.
Stanzas Three and Four
To do justice to the plurality,
To do justice to our life as a reflection.
The speakers add to what they’d been saying in the second stanza. They believe the artist, van Eyck is going to do their lives “justice”. He’ll be able to depict all the intricacies of their lives from “Fertility, domesticity and barefootedness”. When the portrait is done, one should be able to look at it and know it is of a “man and a woman saying ‘we’”. They are embracing their lives together. There is an example of internal rhyme in the second line with “Fertility” and “domesticity”.
The word “justice” is repeated in the fourth stanza when the speakers declare that the artist is going to “do justice” to their bed. This is one of the most prominent background items in The Arnolfini Wedding painting. It’s large and bedecked with linens that are very obviously expensive. The speakers refer to the bed as their most “necessary furniture”. This alludes again to their sexual relationship. Last, they believe their life will be depicted through the “reflection”. This is a reference to the mirror that’s hanging on the far wall in the painting.
The use of a simile to compare one’s life to a reflection works two-fold in ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’. The speakers are at once describing the mirror, and describing the painting which, when complete will also be a reflection of their lives.
Stanzas Five and Six
Our brains spill out upon the floor
Most people are in no position to say “we”.
The speakers go on, starting the fifth stanza with a shocking line. They state that their “brains spill out upon the floor / And the terrier at [their] feet sniffs”. It’s not entirely clear what Durcan was thinking about in this line, but it is probably another reference to how the speakers feel their lives are laid bare for all to see.
Utilizing alliteration, Durcan’s speakers declare the items around their persons to be “The minutiae of [their] magnitude”. It is these little bits and pieces of their lives that define them in this image.
Through the use of repetition, Durcan emphasizes (and perhaps overly so) the connection between the man and woman. It is “relaxing” they state to say “we”. They realize that no everyone is in as good a spot as they are, not everyone can “say ‘we’.”
Stanzas Seven and Eight
Are you? Who eat alone? Sleep alone?
And at dawn cycle to work
Here you have it:
The two halves of the coconut.
In the last two stanzas, the structure of the poem changes. Now, the speakers address the listener, reader, or viewer. They ask whoever is reading the text, or looking at their image if they are able to say “we”. Do “you” have someone to sleep with and eat with? Do “you”, they continue on, have “an Alsatian shepherd dog tied to your handlebars?”.
In the last stanza, the speakers state that they will “pause now for the Angelus”. This is a Catholic prayer said to commemorate the Incarnation–the moment the angel Gabriel revealed that the Virgin would give birth to the son of God. The last line of ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’ is quite obscure, and another moment where one might find additional interpretations. But, considering the first part of the text where the speakers bragged about their relationship. The “two halves of the coconut” are meant to represent the two halves of the marriage (or engagement as some scholars believe).