Sometimes at weddings the bride and groom write their own vows. Frequently, people say things like "my dear Amelia, you are my everything" or "my beloved Bill, I can't imagine myself going through life without you." Cheesy? Yes. But that doesn't make these lines any less true.
"To My Dear and Loving Husband" sounds like a short poem somebody would recite while standing at the altar about to get married. It starts out in a really formal and – we'll come right out and say it – boring way with three "if/then" clauses. Just imagine a bride reciting her vows in front of a whole bunch of people. She's probably a bit nervous, and isn't sure what to say at first, so she takes it slow.
After getting comfortable, our bride's poem starts to pick up steam. She finds her confidence and starts dishing all kinds of professions of love. She's starting to weep tears of joy at the altar as she exclaims in a powerful voice, "I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold […] my love is such that rivers cannot quench"! She uses the same powerful, emotional voice for the rest of her vows, finally concluding with this hopeful message: "Then while we live, in love let's so persevere / That when we live no more, we may live ever."
What we're really trying to say here is that this poem builds to one big, fat crescendo – the cymbal crash of the final two lines. But how does it build? It starts out slow and steady, by sticking to iambic pentameter strictly in the first six lines. Then, in lines 7 and 8, we get the odd, off-kilter rhyme pair of "quench" and "recompense." Our senses are sharpened, and now we're on the lookout for more tiny changes.
And tiny changes we get. First, there are the extra syllables in lines 10, 11, and 12. These extra syllables add just enough variation to play off the rhythm Bradstreet has already established. She's showing us a little style. Second, there's the introduction of alliteration in line 11, with the words "live," "love," and "let's." These sounds are slow and lingering. They give the lines weight, so that they can settle in our minds and have a real emotional impact. The fact that the rest of the poem has made little use of alliteration makes this single moment of it all the more powerful. Those "l" sounds jump right off the page and onto our tongues as we read those lines aloud.
"To My Dear and Loving Husband" is exactly that: a poem addressed to Anne Bradstreet's "dear and loving husband." This is actually, however, a very neat title. The word "dear" refers to the speaker's feelings about her husband. Her husband is "dear" to her, which means she really likes him. The word "loving," on the other hand, refers to her husband himself (he is a very "loving" dude). So the title then points to both the speaker's feeling and her husband's feelings, and illustrates in miniature what the poem claims: that the speaker and her husband are very deeply in love. They both feel the same way about each other, and have a pretty good, harmonious, marriage.
We really don't get any clues for the setting of the poem. In our "Sound Check," we suggested that these sound like wedding vows, but we feel like our lady isn't writing this (or reading it) at our wedding. This is a woman whose love is tried and true.
All we can think of is the setting of our own Anne Bradstreet – a writer, a mother, a wife, and a Puritan immigrant to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. So, we can imagine Boston, Massachusetts in 1633 (which isn't exactly Boston yet because only a handful of people live there), a tiny fireplace in a cozy cottage, a woman staring lovingly at her husband while her children play in the living room… but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Plus, we like to think of this poem as timeless. (And that's not just a cop out!)
Imagine a woman you've known all your life has just gotten married. You were at the wedding, and you could tell she was really happy. Well, now it's a few days later, and she's still glowing. You swear that you've never seen somebody so happy. She won't stop talking about how great her husband is, about how amazing their relationship is, about what an incredible chemistry they have, and on and on and on.
Now pretend it's ten years later. You're in town on business and you pay your friend a visit, and guess what? She's still as happy as the day she got married! It is at this point that you realize she has experienced true love, a fact you confirm when your friend shows you a poem she's recently written called "To My Dear and Loving Husband." You knew she was in love, but so in love that she's started writing poetry? That's the real deal.
And that's our speaker in a nutshell. All you need to know about her is that she loves her husband, a lot. In fact, not only is that all we need to know, based on this poem, it's all we can know.
Of course we might make the leap to assuming that Bradstreet is the speaker (although it's never safe to assume the poet is the speaker in her own poem, unless she explicitly says so). If you think this is a plausible conclusion to draw, check out this biography, which might provide some insight about the effects of Bradstreet's life on her poetry.
"To My Dear and Loving Husband" is a pretty straightforward poem. Often, words are left out (the second halves of the first two lines come to mind) and sometimes the claims seem strange (especially at the end), but overall the poem is pretty easy. Once you have the somewhat old-fashioned language down, you'll see that there aren't really any crazy words, and the structure of the sentences is pretty simple. So, read and enjoy!
Anne Bradstreet really loved her husband. She loved him so much that she wrote several poems about him. In addition to "To My Dear and Loving Husband," there is "A Letter to Her Husband Absent Upon Public Employment" and "A Love Letter to Her Husband." There's also "Upon My Dear and Loving Husband His Going Into England" and "In Thankful Remembrance for My Dear Husband's Safe Arrival" (apparently Bradstreet really loved the word "dear").
As you can see just from looking at the titles, Bradstreet talks about her husband in a relatively consistent way. She loves him a lot, and cannot stand it when he's away. Both in this poem, and in the other love poems she wrote to her husband, she makes many of the same claims. In "To My Dear and Loving Husband," for example, she talks about how she and her husband are one. In "A Letter to Her Husband Absent Upon Public Employment," she writes "If two be one, as surely thou and I" (3), an idea also expressed in "A Love Letter to Her Husband" but in a slightly different way. Clearly this was her topic of choice, and she describes this love in the same way in poem after poem.
So if you find yourself reading a love poem that's to a husband, about a husband, or with a husband in it (and maybe has a few "thee"s here and there), you're probably dealing with Bradstreet. Brace yourself for some romance, awesome readers.
When you read this poem aloud, it's hard not to notice that you've fallen into a rhythm pretty quick. That's because "To My Dear and Loving Husband" is written in iambic pentameter, and for the most part, it sticks to its guns pretty strictly.
This means that each line of the poem can be divided into five groups or feet (that's the pentameter part), which each contain an iamb. What's an iamb, you say? Well, it's an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. That's a lot of mumbo jumbo to throw at you, so let's check out an example so we can see the meter at work.
We can scan line 4 in the following way:
Com-pare with me ye wo-men if you can.
da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM
It's five iambs all in a row, which is simple enough.
Most of the lines are nice and neat like this one, but occasionally Bradstreet will throw us for a loop. Really, would it be any fun if she didn't? One thing she has a habit of doing in this poem is to substitute some other kind of foot for an iamb (i.e., use something doesn't fit the unstressed-stressed pattern).
Take a look at line 10:
The hea-vens re-ward thee man-i-fold I pray.
This line contains iambs in the first, third, fourth, and fifth groups (feet). But that pesky second foot, has something a bit off about it – an extra unstressed syllable, to be precise (so the line itself actually has eleven syllables). When a foot has two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one, we call it an anapest. So basically, line 10 gives us a line of iambic pentameter, with one anapest dropped in for kicks.
So was she just being sloppy, or does that extra unstressed syllable have an actual effect on the poem? When you read the line aloud, you might notice that the extra unstressed syllable gives a little gallop to the line. It livens up the sounds without straying too much from the meter she has established. Poets often do that to make a line stand out, stir up more interest, and keep the poem itself from sounding too sing-songy. Can you spot any other places in the poem where she does the same thing?
What would a love poem be without some very noticeable rhymes? In the grand tradition of love poems everywhere, "To My Dear and Loving Husband" has a rhyme scheme, and you'd have to be sleeping not to hear it. When we use the term rhyme scheme, we're simply referring to the pattern of rhymes at the end of a poem's lines. As a handy code, we use letters to represent the words that rhyme. So A rhymes with A, B rhymes with B and so forth.
The scheme for this poem is as follows: AABBCCDD*EEFF. We call these rhyming couplets, because the lines come in rhyming pairs. You'll also notice that we've starred the second "D." This is because those two lines (7-8) rhyme, but only kind of. The "-en" sounds of "quench" and "recompense" rhyme, but "ch" and "se" sounds are hardly the same. When two words sorta-kinda rhyme like this, we call it slant rhyme, or near rhyme. Why do you think Bradstreet uses it here?
The other thing you should know is that this poem is sort of, but not entirely, an example of an Epithalamion. This neat little (okay, big) word comes from the ancient Greek words for "upon" (epi) and (wedding) chamber (thalamos). An epithalamion is a poem about the wedding of a bride and bridegroom. This poem isn't really about a wedding, but its emphasis on love and marriage reminds us of that genre. We think Bradstreet would agree.
There's a lot of money in this poem. Not tens and twenties, but things that are just as good as cash: gold and riches. In addition to precious minerals, the speaker also uses metaphors of payment to describe her relationship with her husband (the words repay and recompense, for example). It is a little weird to use this kind of vocabulary, to be sure. Who talks of love as transaction anyway? You'd be surprised.
"Ever" occurs four times in this poem, and in such a short poem, that kind of repetition really stands out, especially when three of those repetitions come in the first three lines. Our clever speaker uses the word in two different but somewhat related senses. In the first three lines, the word means something like "at any time." In the last line of the poem, the word means "forever," as in eternally. Both uses of the word suggest that the speaker of the poem is obsessed with thinking about long periods of time, or perhaps all of time itself. She's a romantic, after all, and what's a romance if it doesn't last for all eternity?
The phrase "loving husband" occurs in the title of the poem, which tells us that this is probably a poem about marital love. In fact, that's exactly what it is. The speaker compares love to a powerful, unstoppable force, as an extraordinary gift that can never be repaid, as a means to achieve immortality, and just about everything else you might expect. True love is so incredible that it can actually defy the laws of physics and make two people feel like they are one. Awesome.
"To My Dear and Loving Husband" is all about love and passion, but it's not a sexual passion (maybe it is, but she doesn't talk about it). The poem's religious bent (see "Religion") would make anything too dirty seem out of place. Moreover, the love the speaker describes is about compatibility, harmony, and the immense happiness that meeting the right person can bring. We all know sex is usually a part of this compatibility, but in this poem it's not overtly discussed. Bradstreet, after all, was a Puritan in the truest sense of the word.