By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously we’ve offered ten of the best poems for husbands, so now it’s the other spouse’s turn. Here are ten of the greatest poems about wives, poems for wives, or poems which otherwise concern uxoriousness (love of one’s wife).
Anonymous, ‘The Wife’s Lament’.
This Anglo-Saxon poem, preserved in the Exeter Book from more than a thousand years ago, has had scholars scratching their heads over its true meaning for centuries, but the title does at least give a clue to the poem’s contents. Watch out for the wonderful Old English word ‘uhtceare’, which roughly translates as ‘lying awake before dawn, worrying’. Now that’s a useful word.
Click here to read the poem in the original Old English.
John Milton, ‘On His Deceased Wife’.
‘Methought I saw my late espousèd Saint / Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave’: so Milton began his great sonnet commemorating his wife, who died in 1652 from complications following the birth of the couple’s fourth child.
One of Milton’s most touching sonnets – the other comparable one is his sonnet on his blindness, which occurred at around the same time – ‘On His Deceased Wife’ is a tender and poignant love poem by a poet about his wife.
Robert Browning, ‘Any Wife to Any Husband’.
One of Browning’s ‘dramatic lyrics’, this poem is spoken by a dying wife, asking her husband to remain loyal to her memory, and not to remarry once she has died.
William Barnes, ‘The Wife A-Lost’.
Barnes was a mentor to fellow Dorset writer Thomas Hardy, and in fact, although Hardy often gets the credit, it was Barnes who first resurrected the term ‘Wessex’ to refer to his beloved West Country. One of a number of fine poems Barnes wrote in the local Dorset dialect, this beautiful poem is an elegy spoken by a husband whose wife has died.
Emily Dickinson, ‘I’m “wife” – I’ve finished that’.
The reclusive Emily Dickinson (1830-86), famously, never married – but here, in this poem, Dickinson adopts the voice of a wife as a way of musing upon the place of the wife in society, especially as she is ‘eclipsed’ by her husband.
Thomas Hardy, ‘A Wife in London (December, 1899)’.
Written during the Boer War like Hardy’s more famous poem from this period, ‘Drummer Hodge’, ‘A Wife in London’ is about a wife who receives the news that he husband has died in combat; as such, it complements Barnes’s poem which is a husband mourning the loss of his wife.
Oscar Wilde, ‘To My Wife’.
This may seem like an unusual choice. Oscar Wilde, Victorian literature’s most famous homosexual man, appearing in a list of the best poems for wives? But Wilde was married with children; and in this poem Wilde offers a romantic dedication to Constance, his wife (‘lay’, by the way, is an old word for ‘song’ or ‘poem’ here): ‘I can write no stately proem / As a prelude to my lay; / From a poet to a poem / I would dare to say.’
Edith Nesbit, ‘The Wife of All Ages’.
Written as a riposte to a companion-poem, ‘The Husband of To-Day’, this poem sees the wife responding to her husband’s reassurances that he remains faithful to her, although his eye may be drawn to beauties elsewhere. But the wife is having none of these excuses!
Robert Lowell, ‘Man and Wife’.
Lowell (1917-77) was one of the leading Confessional poets, and an important influence on Sylvia Plath (indeed, Lowell taught Plath in the late 1950s and helped her to find her own poetic voice). Lowell’s struggles with depression and his spells inside mental institutions colour this powerful poem about Lowell’s relationship with his wife, who brings him back from ‘the kingdom of the mad’.
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Anne Hathaway’.
What better way to conclude this pick of the best poems about wives with a poem about the most famous poet’s wife in all of English literature – namely, Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway?
In this poem, Duffy gives Anne a voice as she remembers the times she and her Will spent in their marital bed in Stratford-upon-Avon. Note how the poem is fourteen lines long but without a regular rhyme scheme: summoning the sonnet form which Shakespeare made his own, but not fully imitating it. Anne is both Shakespeare’s wife and a woman in her own right.