Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem invites the reader to learn along with the speaker about the depth and value of what may appear to be trivial and even outmoded ways of doing things. What the speaker first found ludicrous about the wedding parties—their predictable sameness—becomes for him an important indication of the continuity of the process by which individual humans are changed but the human race goes on. Ironically, the speaker of the poem is changed along with the newlyweds as he gradually modifies his initial satirical condescension and recognizes the importance of tradition.

The traditions in the poem include not only the wedding days and the general roles played by family members but also the particular poignancy of marriage for women. Throughout the poem, females appear most affected by the weddings. They especially experience the “religious wounding” (both sexually and psychologically) because, as at a “happy funeral,” the bride dies (losing her name and, in the Renaissance sense of the word, her virginity). The women especially impress the speaker with their knowledge of “the secret” and seem to sum up within their experience much important knowledge of human life and value. Through their “deaths,” they are reborn as wives with new names, and with the potential for renewing the race itself by bearing the next generation of children.

These specific traditions and continuities also form a part of a larger web of meaning in this poem. An entire land and culture—“sky and Lincolnshire and water”—is the setting of the poem, and the title, by placing the poem in the cycle of the year without specifying a particular year, gives the poem a sense of timelessness. Just as the natural world renews itself every year, so does the human race change and renew itself. For the detached, cynical nonparticipant in the rituals, recognizing and appreciating them brings salutary change and a deeper understanding of the world.