34. Slaveship – Josh Rouse
Ten years ago today (as featured at this link here in the 42) I was fortunate enough to marry my wonderful wife. We had been a couple for close on five years prior to getting married but I had known that we’d spend our lives together within a few short weeks of us getting together. When people had enigmatically responded “you’ll just know” to the how-can-I-tell-if-this-is-the-one question I’d never really understood it until, a little like magic, you do “just know”.
And the process of being married, of sharing your life, of being as much in love now as you were at the beginning, is all about uncovering new truth. New to you at least, it’s a path well trodden by those lucky enough to have experienced it. I was struck, in that spirit, by one of the readings that we had at our wedding. Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about love and writing, if not much about naming sonnets, is not an uncommon wedding reading. It kicks off by directly and playfully referencing the marriage service itself – the call to anyone knowing of any lawful impediment – before reflecting on the constant nature of love:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
What struck me was how little I think I understood that sonnet ten years ago in comparison to now, how much richer and how much more valuable love is when it has been tested. Not tested in the sense of feelings becoming uncertain or wavering, quite the contrary – tested in the sense of life’s adversities being faced down by two people utterly unwavering in their commitment to each other.
My wife and I (to borrow a line guaranteed a cheer in any Groom’s wedding speech) have enjoyed a wonderful ten years together. We have laughed a lot, retained a shared love of many things (big American DVD box set dramas, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, country & western, wine), and respectfully disagreed on others (asparagus, football, the merits of video games, eating meat). We’ve raised – or started to raise at least – a smart, funny daughter who makes us proud every day. Even on her worst days. We’ve made a home in a house that, had you asked her ten years ago, my wife would have point blank refused to live in. We still haven’t plastered the artex ceilings. We have built and share a life.
We’ve also, inevitably, dealt with our fair share of stuff that you wouldn’t parcel up and label as fun. Surgery, job loss, more surgery, baby with bronchiolitis, buying the wrong house, madness, further surgery, the cancellation of Firefly, and a bunch of other surgery. Don’t get me wrong, this is just life and, by many, many yardsticks we’re very lucky. It’s just life – it’s just that sometimes there’s been so much of it all at the same time.
That’s when you understand “an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests, and is never shaken”. You don’t understand that stood atop the aisle surrounded by family and friends. Sure, you listen to the words and nod and smile but you don’t really get it. You get it when you’ve stood firm through a few tempests – if not quite to “the edge of doom”.
There’s a brilliant piece of literary criticism on Sonnet 116 dating back to 1936 from Tucker Brooke:
[In Sonnet 116] the chief pause in sense is after the twelfth line. Seventy-five per cent of the words are monosyllables; only three contain more syllables than two; none belong in any degree to the vocabulary of ‘poetic’ diction. There is nothing recondite, exotic, or metaphysical in the thought. There are three run-on lines, one pair of double-endings. There is nothing to remark about the rhyming except the happy blending of open and closed vowels, and of liquids, nasals, and stops; nothing to say about the harmony except to point out how the fluttering accents in the quatrains give place in the couplet to the emphatic march of the almost unrelieved iambic feet. In short, the poet has employed one hundred and ten of the simplest words in the language and the two simplest rhyme-schemes to produce a poem which has about it no strangeness whatever except the strangeness of perfection. (Brooke, p. 234)
I love this piece because it recognises entirely that the heart of the poem, its power and meaning, can not be pulled apart through an unpicking of the mechanics of the verse. Has about it no strangeness whatever except the strangeness of perfection. What a wonderful line. In exactly the same way I can not fully articulate the power and the meaning in my marriage through a straight articulation of the facts: we met, we got married, we bought a house, we had a child. There is a common thread running through those dry facts, a simple but strong stitch that binds them: love. The star to every wandering bark; the fixed point in the sky that guides our vessel home.
There isn’t an easy way to wrap ten years married, fifteen years together, in a single record. Shakespeare gets closer than a song – did I mention he knew a thing or two about love and writing – but this isn’t 42 poems, 42 years. The nearest thing through our time together to “our song”, I guess, is this mildly daft, quirky, fun, light-as-a-feather piece of pop that Josh Rouse put out on his fantastic “1972” album. I don’t think we necessarily both love it because we’re also mildly daft, quirky, fun and light-as-feathers, though at our best we are all of those things, but it does seem to carry some of the essence of what makes us tick as partners. We love some terribly serious and intellectual stuff too but, if I’m honest, putting on this record is far more likely to put a smile on our faces than breaking open “The Complete Works…” and having a quick read through of the Bard.
It remains a privilege each and every day to be married to the best person I know. This post is for her with all my love, always.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 116. Ed. Amanda Mabillard. Shakespeare Online. 8 Dec. 2012. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/116detail.html >.
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Tucker Brooke. London: Oxford UP: 1936.