Poem of the week: Wedding by Alice Oswald

Skilfully moving through changing similes, this outstanding modern sonnet pays tribute to the balancing act of love


From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions …
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.

This week’s poem is one of the outstanding modern sonnets, an inventive and beautiful re-planting of a tirelessly flowering perennial. The collection in which it first appeared was Alice Oswald’s first, The Thing in the Gap Stone Stile (originally published in 1996 by the sadly deceased OUP).

Wedding is unusual in the pace and rhythm of its iambic pentameter. The sail, its first image, embodies perfectly the verse’s forward movement and its solid but adaptable shape. Wedding almost defies the Shakespearean sonnet form by fulfilling its capacity for integration, and minimising the more commonly employed devices of segmentation.

It begins with an ambiguity. “From time to time” colloquially means “now and again”, but it can indicate something larger, and almost opposite: the movement across historical eras, from one era to another. A subsidiary clause, its positioning lets us know that the speaker intends to talk about love as a long-term connection. Even the smaller meaning (now and again) implies that the love is a continuing phenomenon. These opening lines have a celebratory tone: they constitute the “wedding announcement” not as one-off but as the statement of proven commitment, of being wedded over time.

But the poem also sets out to challenge the convention of love as timeless and changeless. This love is organic and mutable; its terms must sometimes be renegotiated. The “tack” is a sailing manoeuvre that allows the boat to travel windward. As a metaphor, the tack connotes the tact and flexibility love demands. Poetry demands it too, of course. And so, changing tack, the sail mutates into the butterfly, and the movement imagined is that of the large and beautifully marked swallowtail, its voyage through the air no less a masterpiece of skilful manoeuvres than the sailor’s.

By this point, we’ve got the feel of the cumulative oral-narrative device that’s being integrated with the sonnet form, enabling an agile leap from thought to thought, simile to simile. So the swallowtail generates a bird, and the swallow generates a coat, perhaps an evening jacket with tails? “And if the coat is yours, it has a tear” is an ironic conditional clause, amusing, affectionate, tactful (of course the coat belongs to addressee!). The “tear” is a rip, I think: we’re not meant to imagine a teardrop, though perhaps a tiny lachrymal hint inevitably lingers. Primarily, the tear evokes “a wide mouth”, an image open to the creative potential of the “gap” (seen in this interesting essay by Agnes Davis as crucial to Oswald’s work).

The wind is still blowing, but now there’s inspiration as well as expiration. It’s the mouth that, when it “begins to draw / the wind” sucks in breath and measures its delivery as sound “like a trumpeter”. In an interview with the White Review, Oswald notes the importance of her experience of having worked with a trumpeter, who, she says, “taught me a lot about the gaps in poems and what they are doing”. The poet, for Oswald, is often a wind-player.

The ellipsis after “millions” marks a breathing space, a slightly extended line break, in which, like the speaker, we listeners must pause to think. These millions are not only people, but all the living matter that rises and passes with each wave of passing time, and that exists “without the need of us”. There may be a certain pathos in this observation, indicated by the endearment, “my love”, but the smallness of the lovers in time isn’t disputed: the sonnet doesn’t construct itself as a defence.

With the analogy of “this” production of sound and “a trick”, the sonnet makes its gentle “turn”. The trick of art is also tricky – difficult and risky – to perform, suggesting “a toe / tip-toeing on a rope”. Internal rhyme adds to the tension, but then, with beautiful timing, the rhyme broadens assonantally, from “trick” to “luck” (plus the echo of “tack”) – and it’s like the tightrope-walker spreading triumphant arms to the crowd below.

The poem wraps everything up with some joyous tautology. That a wedding is “like love” is a curiously compelling idea (leaving room for the reader to delve into the whys and wherefores) but this is almost revolutionised when the speaker finally announces that love is “like everything”. The mother of all similes, it seems to open and close the sonnet simultaneously.

In the interview quoted above, talking about her resistance to the “nature poet” label, Oswald said: “I think the best nature poets are Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare because they include the human and the non-human in the same picture.” This inclusivity is exactly what Oswald seamlessly achieves, not only in Wedding, but in many other fine individual poems and collections.

It’s a little late to wish Shakespeare a happy birthday, but what are four weeks compared to a miracle in 14 lines? Let’s ignore the cruel hand, and do it any way: here’s Sonnet 60.

And, while we’re on the subject, do you have a favourite 20th or 21st-century sonnet? Here are a few other good ones to get you thinking.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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