The theme of marriage lends itself to a variety of poetic approaches. The ancient Greeks and Romans established a tradition of songs written to celebrate the wedding ceremony and to request a blessing on the new marriage. Other poets have paid tribute to their spouses in verse, or complained about the bonds that sometimes become chains. Modern poets look at the ritual of the wedding as a way of understanding how attitudes to marriage and love have changed, and what remains the same.
The first English poet to debate the vexed subject of marriage was Geoffrey Chaucer, who in his Canterbury Tales (c. 1387) offers lively and diverse views from the perspective of both women and men. Seven of the tales comprise what has become known as the “marriage group” because they take up the topic of authority in marriage. Best known of the debaters is the Wife of Bath, five-times married and widowed, and now on the lookout for a sixth husband as she travels to Canterbury with the other pilgrims. In the prologue to her tale, the Wife of Bath is an outspoken proponent of women's rights within marriage. She defends herself vigorously against those who criticize her many marriages, arguing that despite the dictates of the church, God intended us to marry and enjoy sexual love; chastity, she says, is unnatural. Chaucer's portrait of the Wife in the “General Prologue” establishes her lusty nature, and also introduces a central topic of the marriage theme: does one marry for money, or for status, or for security, or for love? The Wife of Bath chose her first three husbands because they were rich and old; thus, they gave her status in society and she easily gained mastery over them through her willingness to please them in bed. She calls her three rich husbands her “good” husbands, because they so readily submitted to her authority. But the only husband she actually loved, Jankyn, her fifth,