To Speak of Woe that is in Marriage by Robert Lowell: Summary and Analysis

To Speak of Woe that is in Marriage by Robert Lowell is a confessional poem. In this poem, a married woman speaks about the problem of her marital life. She has been betrayed in her love and marriage by her husband. The intoxicated husband drops disputes at his home and hits the streets seeking for prostitutes in a carefree manner, moving along the razor's edge. The crazy man might kill his wife and then take a serious promise. His lust is so monotonous and meanness.

Robert Lowell (1917-1977)

For her, it is an injustice and he is so unjust. Getting whisky-blind, he appears home swaggering at five. The wife is in the far of keeping her alive. What makes her move away from marriage? The speaker feels the problem deeply and come up with possible solution. She says each night now she ties ten dollars and car key to her thigh. Then, getting extremely excited in his lust, he rolls above her like an elephant.

In this short poem Lowell portrays how the husband and wife behave and feel about their marriage. The husband is running away from his marriage problems; he goes to love for sex somewhere else. And wife lamenting at him because her husband is out looking for thrills. The first ten lines are in the mode of narrative whereas the remaining last four lines are meditative. The poetic composition begins from the confession of problem and it ends with the solution planned by the speaker. The language of the poem starts with the words like ‘us’ and ‘our’ in the beginning to ‘I’ ‘my’ ‘his’ towards the end. Such changes in pronoun highlights the increasing gap between the husband and the wife in the marital relation and responsibility promised to each other at the time of getting married.

The lines “Our magnolia blossoms” and “Life begins to happen” indicate that the wife may be pregnant one. The poem brings the issue of pain of a married woman when she is pregnant; a supposed critical period in her life when sexual activities are in decline. During the period she fights with her husband and knows that he is having sex with whores and continuously feels pushed further and further away from any form of intimacy with her husband. Using metaphorical language, she compares her husband with an elephant “he stalls above me like an elephant”. This simile relates to the physical unattractiveness that has emerged from the ugliness of their sex lives.

Furthermore, she shows the disgraceful nature of the husband and his joy to the physical world. By the mid of the poem she is nearly speechless with complicated disgust: “Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust… It’s the injustice… he is so unjust -/whisky blind, swaggering home at five.” Lowell puts on the dashes and ellipses marks of punctuation indicating the stammering and confusing status of the woman as a symbol of disturbed state of mind. At the end of the poem, the wife comes up with a solution, so that the husband will not go out again. Lowell finally grants the power to the wife taking control of the situation – “Each night now I tie ten dollars and his car key to my thigh”.

The poem is a sonnet in a regular rhyme pattern of aa/bb/cc/dd/ee/ ff/gg. We also find alliteration in the words like hopped/husband, and drops/disputes in the poem. Similarly, the rhetorical question is also visible in the line: What makes him tick? Which is highly colloquial. Lowell poem brings us inside the poem to make us part of their marriage disputes and invites us to judge for ourselves. His use of language is very witty. In the poem, Lowell writes about sex without saying the word ‘sex’. He describes the husband being drunk without saying the word, “drunk”.

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