Love poetry has been an essential tool in courtship and marriage since the dawn of civilization, and including it in your ceremony makes an elegant statement by including yours in the love stories of the ages.
It can also be convenient for those of you who wish to exchange special words but don't feel comfortable writing them yourself. The best way to segue into quoting your poetry is for the officiant, after giving an introduction and beginning the ceremony, to announce what you will be reading to each other, such as in the following example:
"And now John and Mary will exchange the words they have chosen for each other. John will be quoting from Walt Whitman's 'Song of the Open Road', and Mary from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sonnets from the Portuguese'."
The officiant would then conclude the ceremony in whatever fashion you have chosen.
A poem for wedding ceremony can evoke many different and subtle tones in your vows, ranging from somber to whimsical, and can express the things that are most important to you in your union, such as joy, equality and togetherness. The following are samples representing the full spectrum of these expressions.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's intense public courtship and late marriage to fellow poet Robert Browning are an inspiration to lovers everywhere, and her "Sonnets from the Portuguese" is considered one of the greatest love poems of all time. The following passage is especially appropriate for the bride:
"If thou must love me, let it be for naught Except for love's sake only. Do not say 'I love her for her smile - her look - her way Of speaking gently - for a trick of thought That falls in well with mine, and certes brought A sense of pleasant ease on such a day' - For these things in themselves, Beloved, may Be changed, or change for thee, - and love, so wrought, May be unwrought so. Neither love me for Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry, - A creature might forget to weep, who bore Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby! But love me for love's sake, that ever more Thou mayst love on, through love's eternity."
Words such as Browning's, of course, appeal more to the diehard anglophile than to the everyday person who gets tangled up in thees, thous and wherefores. If you would like to make a simpler statement in your vows, consider this lovely excerpt from the I Ching:
When two people are at one In their inmost hearts, They shatter even the strength of iron and bronze. And when two people understand each other In their inmost hearts, Their words are sweet and strong, Like the fragrance of orchids.
Also in the realm of Eastern philosophy is Lebanese poet and mystic Kahlil Gibran, whose book "The Prophet" is widely loved by generations. The following is an excerpt form his chapter on the subject of marriage, and is powerful when quoted by the officiant:
"You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore. You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days. Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God. But let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of heaven 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 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 but 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."
Like Gibran, the quintessential American poet Walt Whitman emphasized individuality, equality and freedom as being critical elements on a successful partnership. The following excerpts from his "Song of the Open Road" are among the best loved for inclusion in the exchange of vows:
"Allons! The road is before us! It is safe - I have tried it - my own feet have tried it well - Be not detain'd!
Camerado, I give you my hand! I give you my love more precious than money, I give you myself before preaching or law; Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?"
One last poet to consider (for pure fun) in your exchange of vows is the great Scot himself, Robert Burns. The challenge with Burns, of course, is that his poetry must be read aloud in the thickest, most outrageous brogue you can muster, to do justice to the way it is written.
"O my luve is like a red, red rose, That's newly sprung in June: O my luve is like the melodie, That's sweetly played in tune. As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, So deep in luve am I; And I will luve thee still, my dear, Till a` the seas gang dry. Till a` the seas gang dry, my dear, And the rocks melt wi` the sun; And I will luve thee still my dear, While the sands o` life shall run. And fare thee weel, my only luve! And fare thee weel a while! And I will come again, my luve, Tho` it were ten thousand mile."