Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Explication of "Not Ours the Vows"

        This poem by Barton can be found in various compilations of poetry, including the second volume, entitled “Love,” of a 1904 anthology of “The World’s Best Poetry.” Within the broad category of love, this anthology categorizes this poem further by placing it in the section about “Wedded Love.” This categorization also separates the poem from other types of love, such as “Admiration,” “Wooing and Winning,” “Cautions and Complaints,” etc., situating the type of love discussed in this particular poem as specific to the confines of marital love. Based on this, it can be presumed upon first glance at the title that the vows spoken of refer to marriage vows. 
        The speaker of the poem discusses some of the deeper hardships of marriage that are usually avoided in the interest of discussing some of its more optimistic characteristics, which seems to imply that the person is discussing their own marriage. The sounds of the words that describe each of these reflect and therefore reinforce their meaning. Words which describe the more optimistic characteristics like “sunny weather,” “leaves,” and “flowers” sound softer while the words which describe hardships like “stormy skies” and “death’s shadowy portal” sound harsher and sharper. Nothing within the poem points to the gender of the speaker, but given the conventions surrounding marriage at the time and the fact that the poet, Barton, was male, I would assume that the speaker is a wedded man. Regardless of this, the poem could be read from the perspective of either party within a marriage and still retain its meaning. The use of pronouns such as “ours” in the first line and “we” in the fifth suggests that the speaker is talking to his own wife about their marriage or that he is telling someone else about their marriage. The use of vague pronouns also allows anyone reading the poem to apply its message to their own marriage. The poet alternated between masculine and feminine rhyme in each line as well, which could be attributed to coincidence, but seems to be purposeful. This creates another image of marriage with the husband and wife (masculine and feminine) contributing equal parts to create one body, in the literal sense the poem but in a metaphorical sense the couple’s marriage. 
        The first two lines of the poem include the phrase “plight their troth.” In the English language today, the word “plight” is used almost exclusively as a noun meaning “in a negative sense: an unfortunate condition or state.” The poets’ choice of words in the phrase “plight their troth” is significant because of the double meaning of the word “plight,” which in the nineteenth century was still used as a verb meaning “to pledge,” especially when used in conjunction with “troth,” which was “a solemn promise or engagement; engage oneself to marry.” So, while talking directly about his marriage, the speaker manages to hint at the “plight” he and his spouse are in. The speaker’s marriage and the vows which consummated it are not like those of other married couples who “engage [themselves] to marry” in “sunny weather,” or during pleasant stages of their life (OED; lines 1-4). Instead, this couple has loved each other while they “tread the thorny path of sorrow,” walking with each other through a difficult stage in their lives. The speaker even says that he and his wife have good reason “to dread [y]et deeper gloom tomorrow,” indicating the possibility of harder circumstances in the future (5-8).
        Although the speaker discusses the hardships of marriage, he does not dwell on them or even view them in a negative manner. Instead, he emphasizes the importance of facing difficult situations as a couple and how this will ultimately make the marriage itself, as well as the love each spouse has for the other, stronger and more profound. The “thorny path” is mentioned again in the ninth line of the poem but the speaker says that it has “drawn [their] spirits nearer” (9-10). The eleventh and twelfth lines echo this sentiment by saying that “sorrow’s ties,” or the bonds which the couple has developed through their sad circumstances, have “rendered,” or “[brought] (a person) intoa specified condition,” “[e]ach to the other dearer” (OED; 11-12). This could be compared to the idea of a possible future spouse not really knowing a person’s true character until they have seen that person angry or in a situation where things do not turn out the way they wanted them to. This strengthens a marriage since each party already knows how the other deals with conflict and is therefore better able to help them through it. 
        In the fourth stanza of the poem, the speaker turns his attention back to the couples whose love has grown in pleasant circumstances.  He states that this love is “born in hours of joy and mirth.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines joy as “a vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction” and mirth as a “pleasurable feeling; enjoyment, gratification; joy, happiness.” Joy seems pretty straightforward, but the use of mirth is interesting because of the inclusion of “gratification” in its definition. This might have a deeper meaning within the social and religious contexts of the time, which denounced any form of premarital sexual activity, which was considered to be the gratification of sinful, physical desires, which was contrary to the popular Christian institution of marriage. This is probably a bit of a reach, but the speaker could be implying that his marriage has not only the advantage of having withstood hardship, but that he and his spouse’s marriage will be better in the long run because they did not give in to temptation before they married. The structured and consistent meter of the poem is also reminiscent of the more legalistic side of the Christian faith. He also says that love which develops in easier circumstances, since it is not as strong and therefore cannot withstand as much, might fall apart easily even in times of “mirth and joy.” The second two lines of the stanza switch focus yet again to the speaker’s own experience, which is the result of “darker hours.” He argues that since they have invested more effort in their relationship and experienced harder things, they “cherish” each other’s love “more and more” in the same way that a person might take better care of something they worked hard for as opposed to something that was simply handed to them (13-16).  
        The last stanza of the poem is all about the love shared by the speaker and his spouse. The mention of clouds in the seventeenth line might refer back to the clouds associated with sorrow, dread, and gloom in the second stanza. However, they are given more context here as “the clouds of time,” possibly illustrating the temporality and recurring nature of difficult circumstances. The stanza also looks beyond “death’s shadowy portal,” characterizing the couple’s love as having become so strong that it is in some way able to reach beyond death itself. This implies that the speaker is not afraid of death, which would also align with Christianity and salvation. Finally, in the last two lines of the poem, the speaker emphasizes yet again the benefits of “adversity” by saying that it has made their love sublime, or “set or raised aloft; noble, dignified, or stately in bearing” (OED). The “faith and hope” which has presumably gotten them through “adversity” has made their love “immortal.”

Works Cited
“Bliss Carman, Et Al., Eds. The World’s Best Poetry. 1904. Volume II. Love.”,
"mirth, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, Accessed 26 March 2019.
"plight, n.2." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, Accessed 26 March 2019.
"sublime, adj. and n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, Accessed 26 March 2019.
"troth, n. and adv. (and int.)." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, Accessed 26 March 2019.

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Biography of Bernard Barton

Formal Description of "Not Ours the Vows"