Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

While Marriage is a satirical poem, the object of its satire is elusive and ambiguous. At some points, marriage itself seems to be satirized as a romantic delusion. Given the author’s orthodox and conservative Christian belief, however, such an interpretation has limited persuasiveness. Rather, her witty barbs seem aimed more at the incrustations of artificial forms and manners that have obscured the elemental passionate union, and equally at the deceptions and misrepresentations made in the name of marriage. When love comes into the discussion, it is either as infatuate fixation, as in the passage from Trollope on “love that will gaze an eagle blind,” or the mutual narcissism of the self-absorbed couple. Finally, the speaker admits to an inadequacy of rational explanation in, characteristically, another cited passage, this one from French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine: “Everything to do with love is a mystery.” The true paradox is the institution of marriage as a combination of public contractual obligation and intimate, emotional experience.

The contrast between the public, social façade of marriage and the internal emotional dynamics of a love relationship emerges most forcefully in the dialogue between man and woman that the speaker reports in the last half of the poem. This exchange is actually a series of alternating pronouncements rather than a true dialogue, as the two principals actually speak to each other only at one point. The promiscuity ascribed to males is imagined in the butterfly proposing, in a pun within a pun, to “settle on the hand” of the young woman. The natural freedom of the insect is associated with the libertinism of artists and contrasted with the boring philistinism of so-called polite society, which was earlier defined in the religious dedication to the superficial social ritual of afternoon tea (in a quotation from an aristocratic Frenchwoman writing in a women’s magazine).

As with most social satire, Marriage is in many respects a topical poem. Besides understanding the literary, historical, and mythological allusions, the reader should have some acquaintance with the customs and forms of the society being depicted, and even with the personal lives of some of the sources cited. The butterfly quotation alludes to the marriage proposal made by Ezra Pound to Hilda Doolittle (better known as H. D.), which was reportedly opposed by her father in the words quoted. Similarly, the milieu of the drawing room and the afternoon “at home,” no less than the formal studio portrait of the wedding couple, are integral to the poem’s statement. Understanding these elements, like those of the poem’s social context, enriches the reader’s experience of the poem’s philosophical statement.

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