Lowell begins ‘To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage‘ with an epigraph. It reads:
It is the future generation that presses into being by means of these exuberant feelings and supersensible soap bubbles of ours.
This quote is attributed to “Schopenhauer.” This refers to Arthur Schopenhauer a German philosopher who is best known for The World as Will and Representation, published in 1818.
Explore To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage
In the first line of the poem, the speaker begins on a positive note, describing spring and life beginning. This may be interpreted as the speaker being pregnant. She goes on, informing the reader that her life is far from ideal. Her husband goes out, drunk or on drugs, every night and has sex with prostitutes. When he comes home, she has to fear for her life and do what she can to protect herself. In an effort to stay safe from her husband and try to keep her husband off the streets, she begins tying his car keys and a $10 bill to her thigh at night.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage’ by Robert Lowell is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The poem is written in the form of a fourteen-line sonnet with a rhyme scheme of AABBCCDDEEFFGG. This does not conform to any of the most popular, traditional rhyme schemes poets use in sonnet writing. But, it does have elements of both a Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet. For example, there is a clear transition between the eighth and ninth lines, similar to those seen in Petrarchan sonnets, and the poet uses couplets as both Shakespeare and Petrarch do in their sonnets.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example “hopped” and “husband” in line three and “drops” and “disputes” in line three.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions that are easy to imagine that require readers use their senses. For example, “Gored by the climacteric of his want, / he stalls above me like an elephant.”
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines eleven and twelve.
“The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.
and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
The poem begins with a quotation mark. This tells the reader right away that the poem is spoken by someone other than the author himself. It becomes clear, as the lines progress, that this poem catalogs the words of an abused wife. She notes in this first line that the “hot night” forces her and her husband to keep their bedroom windows open. The next lines continue a peaceful and contented tone that readers might expect throughout the entire piece. She describes the magnolia blooming and life beginning to happen.
The speaker notes that at this time of night when she’s opening the windows to ensure that the home doesn’t get too hot, the husband drops his “disputes” and takes to the street in order to “cruise for prostitutes.” The use of the word “cruise” is a common way of describing how someone might troll the streets, either on foot or in a car, seeking out the right kind of woman he wants to pay for sex. The direct and unemotional way in which she conveys this fact suggests that his behavior is far from uncommon. She is used to her husband’s misdeeds.
In the third line, the speaker alludes to the “disputes” that her husband has at home with her. He always gets “hopped up,” perhaps on drugs, and then leaves. These “disputes” are likely their arguments, ones that come back into the story in the next lines.
free-lancing out along the razor’s edge.
It’s the injustice . . . he is so unjust—
By describing the “razor’s edge” in the fifth line, the speaker is suggesting that she finds her husband’s behavior on the streets dangerous. He is walking a razor’s edge between what is legal and what is not as well as what is likely to get him injured or, what he might do to one of the many women he meets at night, It’s possible that “the screwball” might kill the speaker, his wife, or any of the other women that he has sex with.
In the following lines, Lowell provides readers with another great example of alliteration. The phrase “monotonous meanness” is used to describe their husband’s lust. Cruelty is directly tied to the husband’s perceptions of sex. He needs to act in a certain way to take the pleasure he is so interested in.
The use of ellipses and dashes in the second half of the quatrain suggests that the speaker has progressed to a point where she doesn’t know what to say about her husband’s actions much less what to do about them. The repetition of the word “just” is a way of depicting the speaker’s stuttering language and thoughts. She fears him, fears for him, and doesn’t know how to behave around him. She knows there’s a chance that he could harm her.
whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.
My only thought is how to keep alive.
he stalls above me like an elephant.”
The husband returns home, blind drunk, and “swaggering.” The use of this word suggests that the speaker is proud of his behavior and feels more alive and more like a man than he had previously. The tenth line of the poem is haunting. Here, the speaker says that her “only thought is how to keep alive.” She knows that at this moment, his anger with her could return, and coupled with his drunkenness and his newfound swagger, her life might be at risk.
Her solution is an interesting one. At night, she ties his car key to her thigh along with $10. Some interpretations suggest that this act is her new nightly ritual in order to keep her husband home with her and not on the streets with prostitutes. But, her fear of him should also be considered. She might, knowing how angry and lustful he becomes, wants to ensure that she has a means of escape at any time during the night. With his car keys and a bit of money, she could get away from him if she needed to.
In the final two lines, the poet makes use of a simile. Here, the poet compares the husband’s weight and his movements to an elephant. He has the same kind of strength and the same ability to “Gore” his wife as an elephant could with its tasks. This is at once a sexual innuendo and a threat of danger or even death.
The theme of this poem is domestic abuse and danger. Sex is also an important theme that takes on a negative connotation. For the speaker, sex with her husband, or the sex her husband is having without her, is a dangerous thing. Whenever he returns home from “cruising” for prostitutes, she worries for her own life.
The message is that some marriages, like the speakers, are complicated and filled with a very dangerous dynamic. The speaker’s husband is so consumed by his sexual longing that the speaker feels as though he would do anything to get what he wants.
Lowell likely wrote this poem in order to convey a very specific life experience that is different from his own. It is unknown whether or not he knew someone in the situation. But, undoubtedly, many women around the world, and throughout time, could relate to the situation that Lowell’s speaker has found herself in.
This poem is a sonnet that utilizes couplets, or sets of two lines. The poem is also confessional in nature. This is a literary movement in which Robert Lowell played a highly influential role. But, rather than speaking about his own experiences in this piece, he is describing the life experiences of a battered and fearful wife.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Robert Lowell poems. For example:
- ‘For the Union Dead’ – explores the past and the present society and changing idealism.
- ‘Notice’ – describes the beauty of each moment of our lives and how to capture them with the mind’s eyes.
- ‘July in Washington’ – shows both sides of America. Lowell inserts different expressions and comparisons to make his stand clear to readers.