After 37 Years, Still 2 Lights above the Sea


You will not be surprised to hear that poetry played a big role in my wedding 37 years ago, on June 8, 1973. The outdoor wedding occurred shortly after Carleton’s Commencement ceremony (our good friends John Colman and Anne Smith got married shortly before).  Three days earlier, after an intense week finishing up my final essays, I had thrown one last “all-nighter” to write the wedding ceremony.

What can I say?  It was the early 1970’s.  We did things differently then.

Among the images I used was one from Archibald MacLeish’s poem instructing poets to always use images.  (The point of “Ars Poetica” is that you should show, not tell.)  To convey love, MacLeish says, employ “the leaning grasses and two lights above the sea.”

In the ceremony I talked about how the separateness of these two lights was important.  If they came together, they would go up in a great conflagration that would make a glorious light but wouldn’t last.  Separateness was important as well as togetherness.

In other words, although I was passionately in love with Julia, I instinctively felt that there was something not quite right about couples who lose themselves in each other–couples like Romeo and Juliet (read the play carefully and you’ll see that Shakespeare does not unreservedly celebrate their passion but is ambivalent about it, if not downright suspicious) or the two in Women in Love who drown together, she intentionally.  I knew that each of us had to have our own sphere.

Looking back at my marriage, where Julia and I are sometimes focused on each other and sometimes operating separately, I am amazed at how prescient I was. How did I have this understanding at my age, given that I had virtually no experience with relationships?  I suspect, as I look back at it now, it was in part from having read Kahlil Gibran’s “On Marriage” when I was high school.   Here it is:

Then Almitra spoke again and said, “And what of Marriage, master?”

And he answered saying:
You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Julia, we have sung and danced and drunk together (but not from the same cup). I  love you, my beautiful cypress.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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