Poetic Inspiration

Poetic Inspiration

by Stacey Kors

What occasion could be better suited for the reciting of poetry than a wedding?

While it’s become commonplace for poems to be read as part of a wedding ceremony, most people don’t realize that there’s a long and rich tradition linking poetry to weddings. In fact, the practice dates all the way back to the ancient Greeks, who first invented something called the “epithalamium,” which is a song in praise of the bride and bridegroom, typically sung at the door of the nuptial chamber on the wedding night. The hopeful song blessed the couple and predicted their happiness, often referencing various nymphs, gods, and goddesses, asking them to watch over the newly joined pair and consecrate their wedding bed. It was the ancient Greek, female lyric poet Sappho, from around 700 BCE, who first wrote down the epithalamium and turned it into a literary form:

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 epithalamium later became popular with Roman writers such as Ovid, Catullus, and Claudian, but was then lost until the Renaissance, when it was famously revived by the British “cavalier” poets, including John Donne, Ben Jonson, and Edmund Spenser. Spenser’s “Epithalamion,” which was written in honor of his own marriage and features 23 stanzas representing the hours of the wedding day, is the most renowned example of the form in the English language:

O fairest Phoebus, father of the Muse,

If ever I did honour thee aright,

Or sing the thing that mote thy mind delight,

Do not thy servant’s simple boon refuse,

But let this day, let this one day be mine,

Let all the rest be thine.

Then I thy sovereign praises loud will sing,

That all the woods shall answer and their echo ring.

Not surprisingly, couples these days aren’t too keen on having their marriage chamber blessed at great length by gods and goddesses. (While a beautiful and romantic work, Spenser’s seemingly endless poem would cause you and your new spouse to do little more than nod off in your wedding bed.) Instead, brides and grooms are interested in concise poems about love and marriage that can be recited during the ceremony.

There are countless wonderful love poems out there, spanning the centuries, with many specifically on the blessings of marriage. A book like Into The Garden: A Wedding Anthology: Poetry and Prose on Love and Marriage can help you to narrow down the field. Or, how about celebrating a New England wedding with the verse of a New England poet? Take, for example, Emily Dickinson’s tender “It’s all I have to bring today”:

It’s all I have to bring today—

This, and my heart beside—

This, and my heart, and all the fields—

And all the meadows wide—

Be sure you count—should I forget

Some one the sum could tell—

This, and my heart, and all the Bees

Which in the Clover dwell.


Or e.e.cummings’ exquisite “somewhere i have never travelled”:

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

any experience, your eyes have their silence:

in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,

or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me

thought I have closed myself as fingers,

you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens

(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me i and

may life will shut very beautifully suddenly,

as when the heart of this flower imagines

the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals

the power of your intense fragility; whose texture

compels me with the color of its countries,

rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens; only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Flipping through a book like An Anthology of New England Poets should provide you with numerous other options.

For something truly unique, you could always hire a professional poet to express your personal love story. Vermont poet Verandah Porche, who bills herself as a “muse for hire,” interviews each partner separately, gathering stories, themes, and images, then weaves the information into verse. Couples should allow at least two weeks for the poem’s creation, which can also be included in a wedding album or turned into a keepsake for guests.

Before Their Vows, for Connie and Russ

A flock of what looks like seagulls

Veers across the Connecticut

Their joke cries crack up the roof

Of the river, the floor of all fliers.

Love is the punch line. It knocks

The wind into your sails. Why wait

For water to open and soften to wed?

It’s all I have to bring today—

This, and my heart beside—

This, and my heart, and all the fields—

And all the meadows wide—

Be sure you count—should I forget

Some one the sum could tell—

This, and my heart, and all the Bees

Which in the Clover dwell.

Of course, if you’re really feeling inspired, you could always channel your own poetic muse and try writing some wedding poetry yourself. Not only would it be a heartfelt expression of your love, but you’d be continuing a tradition that dates back thousands of years. Sure, your work probably won’t get published, but you and your spouse will have an intimate memento of the most important day of your life to treasure, and to recite to each other on your wedding anniversary. And honestly, what could be more romantic than that?

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