To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage Summary, Theme and Analysis by Robert Lowell

Many critics have said Robert Lowell’s poem To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage is confessional which is agreeable. However, it is merely the speaker’s confession, not the poet’s, for he is a man while the poems’ speaker is a married woman. Nevertheless, Lowell might have written from the perspective of one of his three wives as well.

Without any further delay, let’s read the poem, To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage first and then summarize, and make a thematic analysis of it.

To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage by Robert Lowell

‘The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.
Our magnolia blossoms. Life begins to happen.
My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,
and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
free-lancing out along the razor’s edge.
This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.
Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust…
It’s the injustice… he is so unjust- 
whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.
My only thought is how to keep alive.
What makes him tick? Each night now I tie
ten dollars and his car key to my thigh….
Gored by the climacteric of his want,
he stalls above me like an elephant.’ 

To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage Summary

Robert Lowell’s poem To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage begins with a positive note up until the second line. The weather is hot and the couple keeps their bedroom windows open. Immediately after the speaker says “life begins to happen” we find that her husband is running away from her.

The speaker’s spouse creates family disputes which turn out to be a perfect excuse for him to leave home. He goes in search of prostitutes which the speaker says is a dangerous business. The man is so drunk with lust that the woman fears he might end up killing her in sexual excitement. She says, her life partner becomes monotonously mean with lust.

The poor speaker of To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage also claims that her man is doing an injustice, which is undeniable. The drunk man, giving off whiskey odor, drags himself proudly at five in the morning. Right then, she is again aware of the harm he might cause to her. When her husband’s activities become unbearable for her, the speaker ponders the way to keep him from going out and having extramarital sexual relations.

The solution the speaker of To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage finds and experiments is splendid. She ties her husband’s car key and ten dollars to her thigh in order to let him stay at home. She becomes successful in that her husband doesn’t leave her alone at night but he cannot stop doing an injustice to her. He viciously stalls above his wife to satisfy his sexual desire.

To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage Analysis

Robert Lowell’s poem To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage is a sonnet with the rhyme scheme of aa bb cc dd ee ff gg. The poem begins by describing the setting i.e the place is the speaker’s bedroom, time is night, and the environment is hot. However, the poem is not just about one night, but a long marital relationship between the speaker and her husband.

“The hot night” that makes the speaker and her husband keep their windows open refers to the speaker and her partner’s sexual relationship. “Our magnolia blossoms. Life begins to happen” justifies the preceding argument. When she says, “Our magnolia blossoms,” she might be referring that she is pregnant with her husband’s baby. As a family is supposed to be complete one only after giving birth to at least a baby, the pregnant woman says “Life begins to happen.”

Once the speaker of To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage is expecting a child, her husband leaves home every night in search of prostitutes. He is sensible in that he does not make love with his pregnant wife but still “It’s an injustice. . . he is so unjust.” Lowell seems to be concerned about equality between men and women. Women have to wait until after giving birth to their children in order to have sex whereas men cannot wait even a day.

Despite the injustice her man is doing to her, the speaker is worried about his safety because she says cruising for prostitutes at night is like walking on a “razor’s edge.” His lust is so extreme that it becomes “monotonous” for his wife. In the words of the speaker, his lust is “monotonous meanness.” It means, he is getting unnecessarily mean toward his wife.

When the “whiskey-blind” man returns home at five in the morning, the speaker’s “only thought is how to keep alive.” This suggests that she has some suicidal thoughts kept alive only by the love of her would-be-born baby. While making this rational decision, she is also concerned about the way to keep her husband from running away at night.

Then the speaker says, “each night now I tie/ ten dollars and his car key to my thigh.” The term ‘each night’ suggests that she has been undergoing this woe of her married life for a long time. The car key and ten dollars, further, suggest that the man with heavy lust goes a long way from home to have sexual encounters with other women. Ten dollars is a tiny amount and it is not that easy to find a prostitute who could agree to have such cheap sex.

It somehow solves the problem but now she becomes the victim of “the climacteric of his want.” He is so unjust that he viciously makes love with his pregnant wife. Lowell creates a simile as the speaker says “he stalls above me like an elephant.” This indicates that the speaker cannot tolerate the weight of her man. Nevertheless, she prefers her relationship with her husband this way than letting him go out and make love with other women. This is how she speaks of woe that is in marriage, not just of a woman but also of a man.

To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage Theme

Robert Lowell’s poem To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage holds the themes of marriage struggle, sexual relationship, gender discrimination, sexual superiority of men, etc.

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