Love and marriage have inspired storytellers, poets, playwrights, and novelists for centuries. Below are a few literary references involving wedding and betrothal rings that stand out as exemplary:
After Joseph interprets the dreams of the Pharaoh, he is rewarded with a ring–a symbol of fidelity, friendship, and the Pharaoh’s power and authority. As the Bible reads:
Genesis chapter 41, verse 40-44:
When So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are; you shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; and he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, “Bow the knee!” Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt.
Love Books of Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso (43 B.C.–17 A.D.) was a Roman poet known to the English-speaking world as Ovid. His works were highly influential and imitated in the Middle Ages when he was known as magister amoris, or “master of love.”
Excerpt from The Love Books of Ovid (Translated by J. Lewis May, 1930):
“O little ring that art going to encircle my fair mistress’s finger, thou that no value hast save the giver’s love that goes with thee, be charming in her sight. May she with delight receive thee and straightway slip thee on her finger. May thou fit her, as well as she fits me; and may thy circle, nor over-tight nor yet too loose, softly gird her finger.
Elegy XV: To The Ring Which He Is Sending To His Mistress:
Happy ring, thou wilt be touched by her I love. Ah me, already I begin to envy my own gift’s happy lot…..Go forth, little gift, upon thy way, and may my mistress see in thee the symbol of my changeless love.”
According to Kuntz (1916) “in no period was jewelry worn more ornately, or with greater display, we might almost say ostentation than in the age of Shakespeare.” Therefore, it is not surprising that Shakespeare includes many references to rubies, diamonds, pearls, rock crystal, and coral, among other gemstones. He also gives us ample evidence that a wedding ring carried special significance.
In The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596), wedding rings exchanged by two couples play an important role. Both of the men, Gratiano and Bassanio, were forced to part with their rings as a result of intrigue. Little do they know that their respective wives, Nerissa and Portia, were disguised as the clerk and lawyer to whom the rings were relinquished! In Act V, Scene 1, Gratiano tries to make light of the fact that his ring is missing, only to be rebuked by his wife Nerissa.
About a hoop of gold, a paltry ring
That she did give me, whose posy was
For all the world like cutlers’ poetry
Upon a knife, ‘Love me, and leave me not.’
What talk you of the posy, or the value?
You swore to me, when I did give it you,
That you would wear it till your hour of death,
And that it should lie with you in your grave;
Though not for me, yet for your vehement oaths,
You should have been respective and have kept it.
Gave it a judge’s clerk! No, God’s my judge,
The clerk will ne’er wear hair on’s face that had it.
Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Robert Herrick was a 17th century lyric poet famous for poems that stressed that the world is beautiful, love is splendid, and life is short and should be lived to the fullest. In his most famous collection of poetry, Hesperides, Herrick included the following lines referring to the gift of a gimmel ring:
“Thou sent to me a true love-knot, but I
Returned a ring of jimmals to imply
Thy love had one knot, mine a triple tye.”
Robert Dodsley’s The Toy Shop
Robert Dodsley was an influential author, bookseller, publisher, playwright, and editor in mid-18th-century England. The Toy Shop is a satirical farce wherein the dealer makes moral and social observations about the nature of his merchandise.
Excerpt from The Toy Shop:
Gentleman: I want a plain gold ring, Sir, exactly this size.
Master: Then, ‘tis not for yourself, Sir?
Master: A wedding ring, I presume.
Gentleman: No, sir; I thank you kindly; that’s a toy I never design to play with. ‘Tis the most dangerous piece of goods in your whole shop. People are perpetually doing themselves a mischief with it. They hang themselves fast together first, and afterwards are ready to hang themselves separately, to get loose again.
Charles Churchill (1731-1764)
Charles Churchill was a well-known British poet and satirist. In The Rosciad, a poem published in 1761, the faults and merits of well-known stage actors were satirized.
“Oh! how many torments lie in the small circle of a wedding ring.”
(The Rosciad: l. 1,005)
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Although George Gordon Byron, later Lord Byron, is regarded as one of the greatest European poets, he is equally famous for his extravagant living and scandalous behavior, which included numerous love affairs and marital exploits.
Lord Byron’s thoughts on marriage (from “Journal,” 1813):
“But I never see any one much improved by matrimony. All my coupled contemporaries are bald and discontented.”
His thoughts on wedding rings (from an unfinished satiric poem based on the life of Don Juan, written c. 1818-1823):
“…the damnedest part of matrimony…”
His memories of his wedding to Lady Byron, nee Miss Anne Isabella Milbanke:
“I shall never forget the 2nd of January, 1815, Lady Byron was the only unconcerned person present; Lady Noel, her mother, cried; I trembled like a leaf, made the wrong responses, and after the ceremony called her Miss Milbanke…”
And on a mysterious family ring found on his wedding day:
“There is a singular history attached to the ring. The very day the match was concluded a ring of my mother’s, that had been lost, was dug up by the gardener at Newstead. I thought it was sent on purpose for the wedding; but my mother’s marriage had not been a fortunate one, and this ring was doomed to be the seal of an unhappier union still.”
Gerald Massey (1828-1907)
Gerald Massey rose from humble beginnings to become a well known Egyptologist and poet. He was also intensely spiritual, and some believe he was a practicing druid.
On a Wedding Day
Cling closer, closer, life to life,
Cling closer, heart to heart;
The time will come, my own wed Wife,
When you and I must part!
Let nothing break our bond but Death,
For in the world above
‘Tis the breaker Death that soldereth
Our ring of Wedded Love.
More than any other type of jewelry, rings have solidified their rank as most popular for representations of love. In the next section, learn more about Rings for Men and Women | An Introduction to History and Style.