Article

The paradox of marriage

Mar 19, 2014

Marriage is a conceit.

A conceit is a literary device that yokes two very unlike things in order to reveal an unseen truth by drawing a surprising similarity. It is an elaborate comparison that’s “exceedingly unlikely” but “intellectually imaginative.”

The seventeenth century English poet John Donne is known for his use of the metaphysical conceit, a comparison that embodies the union between the seemingly antithetical realms of the earthly and the transcendent. One of Donne’s most famous metaphysical conceits is an achingly beautiful love poem to his wife, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Here, in one of the most passionate works in the English language, Donne compares the transcendent, spiritual love he and his wife share to—of all mundane things—a compass: “If they be two,” Donne says of his and his wife’s souls, “they are two so / As stiff twin compasses are two.” It’s a paradox. And the paradox is at the heart of the conceit.

Paradox is also at the heart of God’s relationship with humankind and at the heart of the marriage relationship. Marriage is a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality: by becoming one flesh, two differently formed bodies are joined both physically and spiritually. Donne illustrates this paradox of the marriage of the material with the immaterial through the image of a compass. The realness of the compass—a useful tool that operates according to the laws of science and has no obvious link to romantic love—provides a fitting, if surprising, comparison.

“Thy soul,” the poet declares to his love, is “the fixed foot,” of the compass which

makes no show

To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the center sit,

Yet when the other far doth roam,

It leans, and hearkens after it,

And grows erect, as that comes home.

Like the two parts of a compass, Donne and his wife are separate, yet unified, in both their physical movements and in their “hearkening.” The poem then continues in a vein anticipatory of his eventual return home at the end of his long journey (the occasion for the poem) and closes with a final stanza that both elaborates and consummates this unexpected comparison—this conceit—of their holy union to that of the compass:

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

Like the other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

And makes me end where I begun.

Here the work of a simple mechanical object, a compass, and the profound, abstract notion of justness (or perfection) allows us to witness the infinity and perfection represented in the figure of the circle. It’s a picture of the kind of love the poet shares with his wife, but it’s also a picture of a metaphysical truth: the physical is inseparable from the spiritual.

Marriage is a metaphysical union. Yet, marriage is manifested in physical, bodily experience. In the paradox of marriage, two beings who become one flesh participate in a transcendent experience with implications for eternity.

The marriage service from The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 (a few decades after Donne’s death) states that marriage “is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.” In the Christian tradition, marriage is a metaphor that is a picture of the kind of love God has for his people: self-sacrificing and other-focused, at once intimate and procreative, spiritual and physical, earthly and transcendent.

Marriage is more than a metaphor: It’s a conceit, God’s elaboration of himself by means of a human relationship that holds great difference in unified tension. It’s God’s metaphysical conceit in the poetry of his creation. God is nothing if not a poet. And nothing if not elaborate in both his imagination and composition. Elaborate, as the root of the word suggests, means brought about by labor and care, planned with painstaking attention to details or intricate and rich in detail. Just like a metaphysical conceit. To join the unlike—a man and a woman, physical and spiritual—is the work of the poet and of God.

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University, research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United... Read More