“Man and Wife” is a beautiful poem about love and age. Robert Lowell uses stanza form, metaphoric language and symbolism to emphasize the idea that relationships get old with age and one must look at the positive things in life to emphasize the positivity of the relationship. The speaker uses metaphoric language to bring about a tone that is both beautiful and reminiscent of a life that Robert Lowell once lived.
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The poem is split up into two stanzas. The first stanza has 22 lines, whereas the second stanza has 6. The big difference in number of lines most emphasizes the speakers newfound perspective the second time. When the speaker says, “Now twelve years later, you turn your backâ€¦”, it is clear that there is a drastic time change which changes the perspective of the poem drastically. Also, in the first stanza the speaker says, “At last the trees are green on Marlborough street”. This also signals another transition but not as significant as the last one which also warranted a new stanza. It is apparent that the poet wanted to split the two stanzas up chronologically, putting significant emphasis on the historical (first) stanza. In the second section the poet addresses his wife directly. The phrase “Oh my Petite, / clearest of all God’s creatures, still all air and nerve” sounds out of place when taken away, but within the context it defines the speaker’s wish to let his wife know that he still admires and loves her even if his love is impotent and destructive. Although she must act the role of Mother to him, he wants to think of her as his “Petite.” Petite in this situation means small and little. Therefore, he refers to her as lesser than him. And now he recalls the night, so different from this “homicidal” one which he first remembers, when he first met her. Again the focus is on setting. The scene is almost the exact opposite opposed to that of Marlborough Street: it is the noisy Greenwich Village. The poet recalls his former self, “hand on glass / and heart in mouth,” This significant differences in the two stanzas is highlighted thanks to Lowell’s ingenious creativity in stanza form.
Robert Lowell’s use of metaphoric language also plays a significant role in helping the reader understand his true, undying love for his wife. The “rising sun” of line 2 becomes, in the altered mind of the poet who fears passion and emotion, an Indian savage in “war paint” who “dyes us red,” the pun on “dyes” intensifying the death-in-life existence of the relationship that the poet desperately wants and desires. From the poet’s point of view only inert object receive the sun’s life-giving warmth: Dionysus is the Greek God of harvest and wine and also symbolizes a new life and vitality in relationships. The magnolia blossoms, typically a symbol of the beauty of spring and a fresh beginning, are murderous creatures that set the morning air on fire. This new contrast plays with the readers already preconceived notions about what is a new beginning in a relationship and such. And finally, the tirade of the poet’s wife bombards his ear like an ocean wave breaking against a rock. This metaphor is a new contrast that we haven’t seen in this poem before. Instead of turning a beautiful thing into a negative, harsh one, Robert Lowell instead turns a harsh event into a beautiful, warm one. It almost gives the impression that he isn’t listening to his wife as she has her “harsh tirades”. He also gives the idea that this is typical of most husbands by providing the generic title, “Man and Wife”.
It is also critically important to notice that the title of the poem plays a large role in analyzing the poem’s meaning. Instead of an assumed title like “Husband and Wife”, Robert Lowell instead chooses to use “Man and Wife”. He then has us ask a question such as: What is the difference between a husband and a man? He answers this question by giving us the metaphors in the poem. By telling us that he things of a “wave breaking against a rock” instead of the harsh tirades of his wife, it is clear that he is arguing man should not listen to his wife. These gender role issues appear quite frequently in his writing.
In conclusion, Lowell does an excellent job of emphasizing the idea that love can get old with age, but by noticing the small things in life, he now is able to realize that love that he once had.
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