The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

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“The Ache of Marriage” is part of a Denise Levertov collection entitled O Taste and See: New Poems. In the title poem and others in the collection, Levertov moves outward from the sensual and immediate to the wider implications of actions or concepts. The poems are filled with rich physical detail, which the poet uses in this particular poem to present the essential qualities of a marriage. Levertov had written about marriage in earlier poems such as “The Marriage, I” and “The Marriage, II” (in her 1958 and 1960 collections), but those love poems are somewhat more conventional and romantic than her work in O Taste and See. In this collection she achieves a new sense of immediacy, coupling personal experience with myth. These qualities are evident in such poems as “Abel’s Bride” and “Divorcing” as well as in “The Ache of Marriage.” In O Taste and See Levertov seems to have found her personal poetic voice.

“The Ache of Marriage” is a short poem in free verse, its thirteen lines divided into irregular stanzas of one, three, three, three, and two lines. The title, which is repeated as the first line, establishes the essential conflict and dilemma of the poem: the yearning for a total communion within marriage that is probably not attainable. The poem uses the first-person-plural point of view, suggesting that both the man and the woman are searching for joy but are finding that joy tempered with sadness. As is true in most lyric poetry, there is no noticeable distinction made between the author and the speaker (part of the “we”).

The poem employs a series of sensual images to convey both joy and pain: thigh, tongue, throbbing teeth, the belly of the leviathan, and the ark. The images progress from the highly personal to the archetypal and biblical—moving from the familiar and sensual to the universal. The speakers (the partners in the marriage) are expressing the aching quality of a marriage through the senses rather than through spoken words of love.

The last image of the poem is the ark, with the two marriage partners aboard—safe and removed from the outside world yet not happy. The phrase “The ache of it” echoes the first line and concludes the poem, leaving both the speakers and the reader unsatisfied with the knowledge that marriage continues to embody both joy and pain and probably does not allow total communion.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548

Born and reared in England, Levertov moved to the United States after World War II as the bride of an American soldier. Her work was much influenced by American poets, especially William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan. Added to her traditional British poetic experience, the American influence encouraged Levertov to adopt innovative forms.

The poetic devices most important to the poem in achieving both immediacy and voice are the seemingly unstructured free-verse form, the heavy use of sensual imagery, and the use of biblical myth. Levertov used what could be called organic form in “The Ache of Marriage.” As she has indicated in interviews and writing, she lets the content or subject matter of a poem determine its form. Free verse, with its irregular meter and irregular line and stanza lengths, gives her the freedom of prose combined with the intensity of poetry. The term “projective verse” could also be applied to her work in this poem. Projective verse regards meter and form as artificial constraints and seeks to “project” a voice through the content and the pauses for breath that determine the line. The result in this case is a poem of fragmented prose poetry that expresses, through its lack of strict form, the quality of a marriage as being both a yearning for and an inability to communicate fully. Both partners are reaching out but are almost clumsily unable to reach each other.

Since the poem is composed primarily of a series of images linked by abstract concepts, the reader can perhaps best understand the poem by looking at the images separately. The first group of images includes thigh, tongue, and teeth—the last one seeming incongruous until it is examined in context. Thigh and tongue are clearly sensual, suggesting lovemaking by the marital partners. The use of the words “beloved” and “throbs” also contributes to this sense of physical love. However, the “throbs” goes on to include “in the teeth.” One clearly sees an added image here—a toothache.

These images are followed by a stanza of abstract statement expressing the couple’s yearning for commitment. Then the following stanza uses one major image—the leviathan and “we in its belly.” Adding “belly” to the image clarifies the fact that this is a biblical allusion, referring to the story of Jonah, who was swallowed by a sea monster, or leviathan (whale). In this image the couple is depicted as having been swallowed by something they welcome yet cannot escape. They are still searching for some kind of “joy, some joy not to be known outside of it.”

The final image in the cluster is the ark, again a biblical allusion, suggesting qualities similar to the belly of the whale: The ark is a safe haven for the couple (“two by two”), yet no escape is in sight. The cluster of images Levertov uses in this poem work together to form a progression from the personal to the universal. By incorporating the biblical images, the poet moves the concerns of marriage into the mystical and spiritual realm. The biblical images also add a quality of timelessness. Myth in literature makes concrete and particular a perception of human beings or human institutions. In this case, the “ache” of the institution of marriage is made concrete.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153

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