The wedding poem is not a modern thing. In the classical Roman world an epithalamium was a poem specially commissioned to be read to the bride as she made her way to the marriage chamber. Catullus wrote a famous one, which certainly doesn’t leave anything to the imagination as the very first stanza talks about hurrying the bride’s virginity to man … so perhaps we will leave this one in Roman times!
But there are poems that resonate, touch the heart and work for every ceremony, whether it’s a huge family wedding, a sophisticated civil ceremony or a quiet family blessing for a register office marriage.
One favourite was written by Peter Meinke and has rapidly become a hugely popular reading in the UK and the USA. Because it’s not religious, it works for almost every kind of ceremony.
For Gretchen and Herb: June 15, 1991
Imagine the very first marriage a girl
and boy trembling with some inchoate
need for ceremony a desire for witness:
inventing formality like a wheel or a hoe
in a lost language in a clearing too far from here
a prophet or a prophetess intoned to the lovers
who knelt with their hearts cresting
like the unnamed ocean thinking this is true
thinking they will never be alone again
though planets slip their tracks and fish
desert the sea repeating those magic sounds
meaning I do on this stone below
this tree before these friends yes in body
and word my darkdream my sunsong yes I do I do.
One thing that’s not so much in its favour, particularly if you’re having a poem as part of your wedding vows, is that it’s quite a demanding read, and nobody wants to be stumbling over words on their special day.
Another wonderful poem that can be challenging to read aloud is D.H. Lawrence’s Fidelity, although if you’re willing to take on foraminiferae (and there are several online pronunciation guides to help you) it’s a real show-stopper.
Man and woman are like the earth, that brings forth flowers
in summer, and love, but underneath is rock.
Older than flowers, older than ferns, older than foraminiferae,
older than plasm altogether is the soul underneath.
And when, throughout all the wild chaos of love
slowly a gem forms, in the ancient, once-more-molten rocks
of two human hearts, two ancient rocks,
a man’s heart and a woman’s,
that is the crystal of peace, the slow hard jewel of trust,
the sapphire of fidelity.
The gem of mutual peace emerging from the wild chaos of love.
Again, one of the positives about this particular poem is that it’s very definitely non denominational.
Mark Twain may not be your first thought for a wedding poem but in fact he wrote one of the finest, and simplest wedding poems of all, entitled, These I can promise:
I cannot promise you a life of sunshine;
I cannot promise riches, wealth, or gold;
I cannot promise you an easy pathway
That leads away from change or growing old.
But I can promise all my heart’s devotion;
A smile to chase away your tears of sorrow;
A love that’s ever true and ever growing;
A hand to hold in yours through each tomorrow.
It’s straightforward to read aloud, says everything that most of us want to say to our beloved, and rarely leaves a dry eye in the house.
Finally, there’s always the famous Irish blessing, May the road rise to meet you, which in its full form is more a blessing for the whole congregation than just for bride and groom. This one does mention God, which doesn’t necessarily work for a secular wedding, but it’s a gorgeous piece of writing that, once again, says almost everything that a bride or groom might want to say to each other.
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.
May God be with you and bless you;
May you see your children’s children.
May you be poor in misfortune,
Rich in blessings,
May you know nothing but happiness
From this day forward.
May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the warm rays of sun fall upon your home
And may the hand of a friend always be near.
May green be the grass you walk on,
May blue be the skies above you,
May pure be the joys that surround you,
May true be the hearts that love you.