PostedFebruary 19, 2014
The "blessed bond of board and bed" is how Shakespeare once described marriage. "It is leviathan," wrote Denise Levertov on the same subject, "and we in its belly looking for joy." Or frantic Gregory Corso, imagining his own nervous wedding, described it this way:
I kiss the bride all those corny men slapping me on the back
She's all yours, boy! Ha-ha-ha!
And in their eyes you could see some obscene honeymoon going on—
Then all that absurd rice and clanky cans and shoes
Niagara Falls! Hordes of us! Husbands! Wives! Flowers! Chocolates!
What occasion calls for poetry— or inspires the writing of poetry—more than a wedding? Indeed, there is a long and rich tradition linking poetry to the marriage ceremony, beginning with the Greeks, who invented a form known as the epithalamium. This was a song in praise of the bride and bridegroom, sung at the door of the nuptial chamber on the wedding night. The song blessed the couple and predicted their happiness, often alluding to various nymphs, gods, and goddesses. The epithalamium was employed as a literary form for the first time by Sappho, who wrote:
Raise up the roof-tree—
a wedding song!
High up, carpenters—
a wedding song!
The bridegroom is coming,
the equal of Ares,
much bigger than a big man.
The form was popular with Roman writers such as Ovid, Catullus, and Claudian, but it was lost until the Renaissance, when it was revived by poets like Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Pierre Ronsard, and Torquato Tasso. Spenser's "Epithalamion" is among the finest examples of English wedding poems. Written for the author's own wedding, the poem consists of 23 stanzas meant to represent each hour of the wedding day.
These days, however, couples tend to be much more interested in poems that can be read aloud during the ceremony than invocations of nymphs and goddesses. And while the Web is full of silly verse written clumsily for the occasion, if you're looking for poems that are both romantic and of a certain quality, then perhaps consider the following:
"To My Dear and Loving Husband"by Anne Bradstreet
"Romeo and Juliet" by Richard Brautigan
"How Do I Love Thee?" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
"somewhere I have never travelled,gladly beyond" by E. E. Cummings
"A Marriage" by Robert Creeley
"It's all I have to bring today (26)" by Emily Dickinson
"Chateau If" by Peter Gizzi
"On the Evening of a Wedding" by Graham Foust
"Hyla Brook" by Robert Frost
"A Slice of Wedding Cake" by Robert Graves
"To Sylvia, To Wed" by Robert Herrick
"They Loved These Things Too" by Lisa Jarnot
"Bride Is a City" by Kirsten Kaschock
"When a Woman Loves a Man" by David Lehman
"Wedding Day" by Mark Levine
"The Ache of Marriage" by Denise Levertov
"The Stone Table" by Galway Kinnell
[I believe in you my soul...], from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
"The First Marriage" by Peter Meinke
"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" by Christopher Marlowe
"The Two of You" by Czeslaw Milosz
"Sonnet XVII" by Pablo Neruda
"Having a Coke with You" by Frank O'Hara
"The Wedding Vow" by Sharon Olds
"Wish for a Young Wife" by Theodore Roethke
"Epithalamium" by Matthew Rohrer
"Epithalamium" by Sappho
"Prothalamion for an Autumn Wedding" by May Sarton
"Let me not to the marriage of true minds" by William Shakespeare
"A Ditty" by Sir Philip Sidney
"Epithalamion" by Edmund Spenser
"Sonnet on Love XIII" by Jean de Sponde
"Married Love" by Kuan Tao-Sheng
"A Wedding" by James Tate
"O true and tried, so well and long," from In Memoriam by Lord Alfred Tennyson
"A Wedding Toast" by Richard Wilbur
"Marriage" by William Carlos Williams
"A Blessing" by James Wright
":Mother of the Groom" by Seamus Heaney
"Restatement of Romance" by Wallace Stevens
An excellent resource is the anthology Into The Garden: A Wedding Anthology: Poetry and Prose on Love and Marriage, edited by Robert Hass and Stephen Mitchell, published by Perennial.