Included in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Quotations is the following poem:

Time was my spouse and I could not agree,
Striving about superiority:
The text which saith that man and wife are one,
Was the chief argument we stood upon:
She held, they both one woman should become;
I held they should be man, and both but one.
Thus we contended daily, but the strife
Could not be ended, till both were one Wife.

Here is my understanding which I am not quite sure. It seems to me Franklin was analogizing the relationship between one and time to that between a husband and a wife, trying to say that one should not strive for superiority but coherence.

Actually I did not quite get "I could not agree, striving about superiority". I understand it by substituting "help" for "agree". Is that correct?

In addtion, I do not get the end "but the strife could not be ended, till both were one Wife". So the wife wins?

  • agree doesn't mean help. He's saying "my spouse and I could not agree about this topic". – stangdon Apr 7 '17 at 12:46
  • So the meaning of the first sentence is "my spouse and I could not agree and argued about superiority"? Oh, then I completely misunderstood the whole poem. By the way, what does "time was" mean here? – reflectionalist Apr 7 '17 at 12:53
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    @reflectionalist: I took it to be "Time was, my spouse and I ....". That is, "There was a time when ...." Time was is a spondee. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 7 '17 at 13:13

Here, "Time was..." is probably used here in the sense of "There was a time that..." so you ought to read the first line as

[Time was] [my spouse and I could not agree]

(Wiktionary cites uses of this construction from 1659, so it certainly existed during Franklin's lifetime.)

Read in this way, it is clear that "agree" is used with both "my wife and I" -- the two cannot come to an agreement.

The poem is about how the narrator and his wife disagree over who should have "superiority" in the marriage. "The text" mentioned here is Genesis 2:24 (as StoneyB has already said), which says that the married couple must become "one flesh", but the couple in the poem disagree (humorously) over whose flesh they should become.

The last two lines of the poem can be read as, "We fought over this daily until finally she won," (i.e., the narrator is defeated and her argument that the two become "one wife" prevails).


ADDED: This interpretation of Time as the spouse is dead wrong.

(But the Biblical allusion and the argument are still okay.)

Franklin and Time are arguing about how to interpret the Biblical verse at Genesis 2:24 (also quoted at Ephesians 5:31):

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. —KJV

They argue about superiority: which of the couple is to be the "one" in which both identities are subsumed. Franklin says that the husband should be the one, Time says the wife, and they cannot come to any agreement. But in the end the argument was ended when Time inevitably became the victor.

What is implied is that because man is mortal, Time always has the last word.

  • Thanks for the pointer of the Biblical verse. I had a similar understanding of the theme of the poem as an argument between Time (as his spouse) and Franklin. But given the meaning of "Time was" @apsillers linked, I think I probably over-interpreted the poem. – reflectionalist Apr 8 '17 at 1:33

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