Art, Life, and Legacy in Robert Lowell’s “Marriage”

I am under the impression that life imitates art a great deal more than the reverse. How much of what we say or do is influenced by characters from movies, books, or video games we like and wish to emulate? Next time you have a conversation, pay attention to how much of it is composed of references or quotes. Perhaps in the social circles I travel in this happens more often, but I would say even with the least culturally savvy group of people, it is inevitable that at some point someone might say a line they heard in a movie, or imitate the voice of a TV show character.

I do not think this is a new phenomenon brought on by a focus on celebrity culture and other buzz words or something something something. Humans love stories. We survive not through facts but through narrative, building micro-narratives of our daily life into a macro-narrative that makes up our “life story”. If we don’t feel like our life has some sort of meaning or value, it can get pretty depressing. Thinking back to conversations, when we are conveying information, we usually do so in story form, for example, “You wouldn’t believe the day I had! It began with my friend accidentally backing into my car! Now the driver door doesn’t even open, so I had to get in the car through an elaborate system of pulleys…” Considering the amount of time we spend in our lives constructing stories and building narrative, it makes sense that there would be in intimate relationship between art and life.

The Robert Lowell poem, “Marriage” contemplates this theme, as Lowell compares a family photograph of his own to a famous Van Eyck painting (shown below). In “Marriage”, Robert Lowell compares a family photograph of his own to the Van Eyck painting the Arnolfini Marriage, or The Arnolfini Double-Portrait, using the iconic image to reflect further on his thoughts on marriage, and creation, both reproductive and artistic. Like his earlier poems, Lowell infuses autobiographical content with broader themes; in “Marriage”’s case, Lowell muses on the importance of legacy and the relationship between art and life (which one truly imitates the other). I will look in this entry on the theme of art imitating life/life imitating art and legacy (creative and reproductive) within “Marriage”. But first, the poem!

Marriage

I.

We were middle-class and verismo

enough to suit Van Eyck,

when we crowded together in Maidstone,

patriarch and young wife

with our three small girls

to pose in Sunday-best.

The shapeless comfort of your flowered frock

was transparent against the light,

but the formal family photograph in color

shows only a rousing brawn of shoulder

to tell us you were pregnant.

Even there, Sheridan, though unborn,

was a center of symmetry;

even then he was growing in hiding

toward gaucheness and muscle—

to be a war-

chronicler of vast inaccurate memory.

Later, his weird humor

made him elf and dustman,

like him, early risers.

This summer, he is a solder—

unlike father or mother,

or anyone he knows,

he can choose both sides:

Redcoat, Minuteman, or George the Third…

the ambivalence of the Revolution that made him

half-British, half-American.

II.

I turn to the Arnolfini Marriage,

and see

Van Eyck’s young Italian merchant

was neither soldier nor priest.

In an age of Faith,

he is not abashed to stand weaponless,

long-faced and dwindling

in his bridal bedroom.

Half-Jewish, perhaps,

he is freshly married,

and exiled for his profit to Bruges.

His wife’s with child;

he lifts a hand,

thin and white as his face

held up like a candle to bless her…

smiling, swelling, blossoming…

Giovanni and Giovanna—

even in an age of costumes,

they seem to flash their fineness…

better dressed than kings.

The picture is too much like their life—

a crisscross, too many petty facts,

this bedroom

with one candle still burning in the candelabrum,

and peaches blushing on the windowsill,

Giovanni’s high-heeled raw wooden slippers

thrown on the floor by her smaller ones…

dyed sang de boeuf

to match the restless marital canopy.

They are rivals in homeliness and love;

her hand lies like china in his,

her other hand

is in touch with the head of her unborn child.

The wait and pray,

as if the airs of heaven

that blew on them when they married

were now a common visitation,

not a miracle of lighting

for the photographer’s sacramental instant.

Giovanni and Giovanna,

who will outlive him by 20 years…

“Marriage” follows generally in the tradition of ekphratic poetry, as it describes a piece of art and uses the painting as a vehicle to contemplate themes beyond the painting. I want to think briefly about the multiple meanings of the poem’s title. Of course marriage refers to the domestic relationship between two people, but marriage also refers to the unification of ideas into a cohesive whole. Structurally, the poem imitates the second meaning, as Lowell splits the poem into two sections, creating a unified message by its’ conclusion.

The first part of the poem focuses on Lowell’s family photograph with his children and now-pregnant third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood. Right from the first line we see that Lowell’s musing on mimesis within the poem with the comment that his family is “verismo/enough to suit Van Eyck” (1-2). Presumably because the Lowells are a “real” family in the sense that they have flesh and blood. I do not wish to offer a prescriptive comment on what a “real” family unit might be, but Lowell could mean they are a real family in the sense they are married and clearly fertile, shown through Caroline’s pregnancy. The suitability of Lowell’s family into a certain type of painting genre[1] immediately indicates Lowell’s focus in the poem on the relationship between art and life. The selection of the Arnolfini Marriage[2] as the painting Lowell compares his family photograph to also emphasises the art/life theme. Two of the aspects of the painting it is best known for is the mirror in the middle of the room that reflects back the couple and Van Eyck and the writing on the wall “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434” (Jan Van Eyck was here 1434). Even though the topic of the painting does not directly involve the artist, he still cheekily includes himself. Lowell’s choice to reference a painting that has such intentional artistic involvement makes a comment on the inevitability of the artist being incorporated into his art. Considering Lowell’s association with the confessional poetry movement, the insertion of poet into the poetry was a conscious and essential decision in his own personal style. In describing the Arnolfini couple, Lowell comments that “they wait and pray/as if the airs of heaven…were now a common visitation,/not a miracle of lighting/for the photographer’s sacramental instant” (61-66). The subordinating conjunction “as if” creates a hierarchical relationship between the photographer’s manipulation of the lighting and heaven, privileging the artistic intervention in the couple’s perception of reality. Notice the contrast as well between the “miracle of lighting” and the lines directly afterwards: “Giovanni and Giovanna/who will outlive him by 20 years…” (67-68). The historical realities end up trumping the beauty of the scene, complicating the relationship between perception created by art and reality.

Reproduction is also a central component to “Marriage”. Lowell devotes the entire second stanza to his unborn son Sheridan (unborn in the timeline of the poem, not when the poem was written) and the Arnolfini Wedding is a painting that focuses on marriage as a vehicle of reproduction. Sheridan, as the first child Lowell would have with Caroline Blackwood “though unborn,/was a center of symmetry” (12-13), physically embodying the mix between the American and British upper class within their relationship, at least temporarily within the womb he can “choose both sides” (24). Lowell notes the pregnancy[3] within the Van Eyck painting too, and implies that Giovanna feels more attuned to her baby than her husband. Her hand lies “like china” (58), passively, in Giovanni’s, but her other hand “is in touch with the unborn child” (60). Just like a poem or painting, children are a means of a legacy, a way of living on after your death. Considering Lowell’s personal life (he had three tumultuous marriages after all), it is understandable that he would focus more on the children within both the photograph and the painting instead of on the spousal relationship.

By thinking both of the inevitable fusion with the artist and his work, as well as the sharing of genetic and behavioural parts of yourself with your children, Lowell uses “Marriage” to contemplate types of immortality, rather than thinking of romantic love or domestic obligation as the title might imply. The comparison between his family photograph and the Arnolfini Wedding recalls the theme of life imitating art and vice versa and how art can influence perception of reality. Lowell uses autobiographical facts in his poetry not because he has a narcissistic fixation on his personal experiences, but as a way of connecting the mundane to more abstract contemplation. There is much more to be said about the poem, but I never intend these entries to be exhaustive; I want to flirt, not have an extended affair. Feel free to think more about other aspects of the poem as well, and about the amount of mimetic expression within your own life. It is quite mind-blowing when you start to notice how much art and literature shape our perceptions and behaviour.


[1] Interestingly, the verismo, or realistic style of painting is popular among 19th century painters. Although Van Eyck used a more realistic style, he precedes verismo painting by several hundred years.

[2] Lowell uses the title Arnolfini Marriage, so for purposes of clarity I will also use this title, although in truth it is probably not a painting of a wedding but merely a double-portrait of the Arnolfinis.

[3] A common misconception is that Giovanni’s wife in the painting is pregnant. The woman in the Arnolfini Wedding was probably not pregnant; she most likely was gathering her skirts in front of her, as per the fashion of the time. Giovanni Arnolfini had two wives, both who died childless. Nonetheless, there is a symbolic focus on fertility in the painting: her green dress connotes vitality and the dog between the couple could represent lust, desire, or baser animal urges.

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3 thoughts on “Art, Life, and Legacy in Robert Lowell’s “Marriage”

  1. This is one of my favorites. Jhumpa Lahiri describes this piece in one of her short stories in Unaccustomed Earth.

  2. Pingback: Two Views of Poetry Part Two: Lowell’s “Fishnet” and the Poet’s Place in History | Salvage

  3. Pingback: Two Views of Poetry Part Two: Lowell’s “Fishnet” and the Poet’s Place in History – Salvage

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