This is a really great poem.
Mary, Lady Chudleigh's poem, "To the Ladies," provides commentary on the institution of marriage. She begins by putting her heartfelt conclusion on line one:
Wife and servant are the same.
To her way of thinking, once a woman is a wife, she also becomes a servant: the words are synonymous. The difference between the two is simply a question of semantics.
Then she describes the idea and perceptions of marriage. Often people refer to marriage as "tying the knot." Here the author states that it is a fatal knot. "Fatal" here is a very precise and dark word.
Dictionary.com defines the word "fatal" as something that can cause death or does so. "Fatal" is a warning.
The lines of a wedding ceremony, "...let no man put assunder" are alluded to: that the bonds of matrimony never be severed. Lady Chudleigh makes it sounds more like a curse. She writes:
...which nothing, nothing can divide
The repetition of the word "nothing" stresses how permanent this bond is. Once the woman speaks the word in her vows "obey," the law "supreme" makes sure this is followed not just in spirit but in deed. I sense here that "supreme" does not refer to God, but to men's laws.
The following line indicates that after the vows, the "honeymoon is over."
Then all that's kind is laid aside
The wooing, love notes, flowers and flirtations are done with. It's now time to get down to the business of marriage. A woman takes her vows and she then belongs to him. Like an "eastern prince," the man grows more powerful, while her power diminishes...and disappears.
When the speaker refers to "...And all his innate rigour shows," ("rigour" is the British spelling), she is explaining that once married, his natural tendency to stiff, unbending behavior awakes. ("Innate" meaning "there from birth.")
The author goes on to describe the rules for the new wife: that looking, laughing or speaking when not permitted to do so is seemingly all it will take to break the wedding vows. Like one who is "mute," she must make signs rather than open her mouth. This might be literal or figurative: it may simply mean that the wife may no longer speak her mind, but say only those things expected of her—which may include only the rhetoric the husband expects to hear.
The next section goes on to state that the bride will have no freedom; she will be instructed by her husband's nod [of approval?], and she must fear him as if her were God. Every day she will be expected to serve and obey, with no freedom to act or say what she wants—having no original thought; her only sentiments are those he approves of. He has the power; he is the smart and funny one (whether he is or not).
Finally, with all these dire consequences described, the author issues her warning. If I were to think of a physical metaphor, she is holding up the crucifix to ward off a vampire. With this image in mind, she declares to women: BE ON YOUR GUARD!
Women should do anything possible to avoid ("shun") the ["wretched"] state of marriage. (Her seriousness is seen in her repetition of "shun.") If a man approaches a woman with flattery and fawning (giving exaggerated attention), detest him. Beyond all things, a woman should be aware of her own importance and value, and reject men. A woman must be proud and wise in order to be happy. Do NOT marry, she implores women!