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Epithalamion by Edmund Spenser
Epithalamion is an ode written as the finale of Amoretti, commemorates Spenser’s marriage to Elizabeth Boyle, daughter of James Boyle, the relation of Earl of Cork, Richard Boyle, on June 11, 1594. The music begins before sunrise and continues through the wedding ceremony and into the newlywed couple’s consummation night.
Throughout Epithalamion, the speaker marks time by referring to the physical movements of the bridal party, the locations of the sun and other heavenly bodies, and the light and darkness that fill the day.
Although strongly rooted in the classical tradition, Epithalamion borrows its setting and several of its images from Ireland, the location of Edmund Spenser’s wedding to Elizabeth Boyle. Some commentators regard this Irish connection as a reflection within the poem on the correct relationship between ruling England (the groom) and subject Ireland (the bride). Spenser’s affection for the Irish countryside is evident in his vivid descriptions of the natural world around the couple, while his political ideas on English supremacy are hinted at in the bond between the bride and groom themselves.
Other scholars have seen Spenser’s gift to his bride as a literary argument for the kind of husband-wife relationship he intends the two of them to have, rather than a celebration of their wedding day.
Summary of Epithalamion ( Stanza Wise)
Edmund Spenser wrote Epithalamion as a wedding gift for his bride, Elizabeth Boyle. The poem follows the couple’s wedding day from the groom’s eager hours before dawn to the late hours of the night after the husband and wife have consummated their marriage. Spenser’s representation of time as it passes is systematic, both in the factual chronological sense and in the subjective sense of time as perceived by those waiting in expectancy or fear.
This ode, like most classically-inspired works, begins with an invocation to the Muses to assist the groom; but, in this case, they are to assist him in awakening his bride, not in creating his literary work. Then there is an increasing procession of figures attempting to bestir the bride from her bed. When the sun rises, the bride finally awakens and begins her procession to the bridal bower. She arrives at the “temple” is married, and then there is a celebration. Almost immediately, the groom wishes for everyone to go and the day to be cut short so that he can enjoy the ecstasy of his wedding night. When night falls, however, the groom’s thoughts turn to the fruit of their union, praying to various gods that his new wife’s womb will be fertile and deliver him several offspring.
The groom invokes the muses to inspire him to correctly laud the praises of his beloved bride. He claims he will sing to himself “as Orpheus did for his own bride.” This stanza, like the majority of the subsequent stanzas, concludes with the refrain “The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring.”
In the tradition of classical authors, the poet invokes the muses to inspire him. Unlike many poets who invoked a single muse, Spenser invokes all the muses here, implying that his subject necessitates a wide variety of mythic inspiration. The reference to Orpheus is an allusion to that hero’s seduction of his bride’s spirit from the realm of the dead using his lovely music; the groom, too, intends to awaken his bride from her slumber, leading her into the light of their wedding day.
Before dawn, the groom summons the muses to his beloved’s bower in order to rouse her. Hymen, the deity of marriage, is already awake, and so should the bride. The groom begs the muses to remind his bride that today is her wedding day, a day that will bring her great joy for all the “paynes and sorrowes past.”
Another classical figure, Hymen, is mentioned here, and not for the first time. If the god of marriage is ready, and the groom is ready, he expects his wife to be ready as well. The emphasis is on the sacredness of the wedding day, which should entice the bride to attend as soon as feasible. It is the marriage ceremony, not the bride (or groom), that determines what is necessary in this case.
The groom orders the muses to call all the nymphs they can to join them to the bridal chamber. On their way, they are to collect all the fragrant flowers they can and decorate the route leading from the “bridal bower,” where the marriage ceremony will take place, to the entrance of the bride’s chambers. If they do, she will walk from her accommodations to the wedding location solely on flowers. Their music will awaken the bride as they decorate her doorstep with flowers.
With the summoning of the nymphs, this celebration of Christian nuptials becomes firmly rooted in Greek mythology. There is no more pagan image than these nature-spirits strewing the ground with varied flowers to create a beautiful path from the bride’s bedchamber to the wedding bower. Although Spenser will later establish Protestant marriage ideals, he has opted to welcome the wedding day dawn with the spirits of ancient paganism instead.
Addressing the numerous nymphs of other natural settings, the groom requests that they tend to their speciality in order to make the wedding day ideal. The nymphs who care about the ponds and lakes should ensure that the water is pure and free of lively fish so that they can see their own reflections in it and thus best prepare themselves to be seen by the bride. The nymphs of the mountains and woods who keep deer safe from ravening wolves should use their skills to keep these same wolves away from the bride on her wedding day. Both groups are expected to be present to help beautify the wedding venue with their beauty.
Spenser expands on the nymph-summoning of Stanza 3 in this section. The fact that he emphasises on the two parties’ capacities to prevent disruptions suggests that he anticipated some misfortune attending the wedding. It is unclear whether this is typical “wedding day jitters” or more politically motivated anxiety about the subject of Irish uprisings, although the wolves mentioned would come from the same place. Irish resistance groups used to mask their movements and attack at the invading English with impunity.
The groom now addresses his bride personally in order to persuade her to wake up. Sunrise has long passed, and Phoebus, the sun god, is displaying “his glorious hed.” The birds are already singing, and the groom argues that their song is a joyful invitation to the bride.
The mythical characters of Rosy Dawn, Tithones, and Phoebus are invoked here to continue the ode’s classical theme. So far, its content is indistinguishable from that of a pagan wedding hymn. The fact that the groom must address his bride directly illustrates both his impatience and the ineffectiveness of relying on the muses and nymphs to fetch the bride.
The bride has finally awoken, and her eyes have been compared to the sun with their “goodly beams/More bright than Hesperus.” The groom invites the “daughters of delight” to attend to the bride, but also the Hours of Day and Night, the Seasons, and the “three handmayds” of Venus. He encourages the latter to do for his wife what they do for Venus: sing to her as she dresses for her wedding.
There is second daybreak here when the “darksome cloud” is lifted from the bride’s face and her eyes are free to shine in all their splendour. The “daughters of delight” are the nymphs, who are still exhorted to attend on the wedding, but Spenser introduces the personifications of time in the hours that make up Day, Night, and the seasons. He will return to this time motif later, but it is crucial to note that here he views time itself participating in the marriage ritual as much as the nymphs and handmaids of Venus.
The bride is ready with her attendant virgins, so now it is time for the groomsmen and the groom himself to prepare. The groom implores the sun to shine brightly, but not hotly lest it burns his bride’s fair skin. He then prays to Phoebus, who is both sun-god and originator of the arts, to give this one day of the year to him while keeping the rest for himself. He offers to exchange his own poetry as an offering for this great favour.
The theme of light as both a sign of joy and an image of creative prowess begins to be developed here, as the groom addresses Phoebus. Spenser refers again to his own poetry as a worthy offering to the god of poetry and the arts, which he believes has earned him the favour of having this one day belong to himself rather than to the sun-god.
The mortal wedding guests and entertainment move into action. The minstrels play their music and sing, while women play their timbrels and dance. Young boys run throughout the streets crying the wedding song “Hymen io Hymen, Hymen” for all to hear. Those hearing the cries applaud the boys and join in with the song.
Spenser shifts to the real-world participants in the wedding ceremony, the entertainment and possible guests. He describes a typical Elizabethan wedding complete with elements harking back to classical times. The boys’ song “Hymen io Hymen, Hymen” can be traced back to Greece, with its delivery by Gaius Valerius Catullus in the first century B.C.
The groom beholds his bride approaching and compares her to Phoebe (another name for Artemis, goddess of the moon) clad in white “that seems a virgin best.” He finds her white attire so appropriate that she seems more angel than woman. In modesty, she avoids the gaze of the myriad admirers and blushes at the songs of praise she is receiving.
This unusual stanza has a “missing line”– a break after the ninth line of the stanza (line 156). The structure probably plays into Spenser’s greater organization of lines and meter, which echo the hours of the day with great mathematical precision. There is no aesthetic reason within the stanza for the break, as it takes place three lines before the verses describing the bride’s own reaction to her admirers. The comparison to Phoebe, twin sister of Phoebus, is significant since the groom has essentially bargained to take Phoebus’ place of prominence this day two stanzas ago. He sees the bride as a perfect, even divine, counterpart to himself this day, as Day and Night are inextricably linked in the passage of time.
The groom asks the women who see his bride if they have ever seen anyone so beautiful in their town before. He then launches into a list of all her virtues, starting with her eyes and eventually describing her whole body. The bride’s overwhelming beauty causes the maidens to forget their song to stare at her.
Spenser engages the blason convention, in which a woman’s physical features are picked out and described in metaphorical terms. Unlike his blasons in Amoretti, this listing has no overarching connection among the various metaphors. Her eyes and forehead are described in terms of valuable items (sapphires and ivory), her cheeks and lips compared to fruit (apples and cherries), her breast is compared to a bowl of cream, her nipples to the buds of lilies, her neck to an ivory tower, and her whole body compared to a beautiful palace.
The groom moves from the external beauty of the bride to her internal beauty, which he claims to see better than anyone else. He praises her lively spirit, her sweet love, her chastity, her faith, her honour, and her modesty. He insists that could her observers see her inner beauty, they would be far more awestruck by it than they already are by her outward appearance.
Although not a blason like the last stanza, this set of verses is nonetheless a catalogue of the bride’s inner virtues. Spenser moves for a moment away from the emphasis on outward beauty so prominent in this ode and in pagan marriage ceremonies, turning instead to his other classical influence: Platonism. He describes the ideal woman, unsullied by fleshly weakness or stray thoughts. Could the attendants see her true beauty–her absolute beauty– they would be astonished like those who saw “Medusaes mazeful hed” and were turned to stone.
The groom calls for the doors to the temple to be opened that his bride may enter in and approach the altar in reverence. He offers his bride as an example for the observing maidens to follow, for she approaches this holy place with reverence and humility.
Spenser shifts the imagery from that of a pagan wedding ceremony, in which the bride would be escorted to the groom’s house for the wedding, to a Protestant one taking place in a church. The bride enters in as a “Saynt” in the sense that she is a good Protestant Christian, and she approaches this holy place with the appropriate humility. No mention of Hymen or Phoebus is made; instead, the bride approaches “before th’ almighties vew.” The minstrels have now become “Choristers” singing “praises of the Lord” to the accompaniment of organs.
The bride stands before the altar as the priest offers his blessing upon her and upon the marriage. She blushes, causing the angels to forget their duties and encircle her, while the groom wonders why she should blush to give him her hand in marriage.
Now firmly entrenched in the Christian wedding ceremony, the poem dwells upon the bride’s reaction to the priest’s blessing, and the groom’s reaction to his bride’s response. Her blush sends him toward another song about her beauty, but he hesitates to commit wholly to that. A shadow of doubt crosses his mind, as he describes her downcast eyes as “sad” and wonders why making a pledge to marry him should make her blush.
The Christian part of the wedding ceremony is over, and the groom asks that the bride to be brought home again and the celebration to start. He calls for feasting and drinking, turning his attention from the “almighty” God of the church to the “God Bacchus,” Hymen, and the Graces.
Spenser slips easily away from the Protestant wedding ceremony back to the pagan revelries. Forgotten is the bride’s humility at the altar of the Christian God. Instead, he crowns Bacchus, god of wine and revelry, and Hymen was requesting the Graces to dance. Now he wants to celebrate his “triumph” with wine “poured out without restraint or stay” and libations to the aforementioned gods. He considers this day to be holy for himself, perhaps seeing it as an answer to his previous imprecation to Phoebus that this day belongs to him alone.
The groom reiterates his affirmation that this day is holy and calls everyone to celebrate in response to the ringing bells. He exults that the sun is so bright and the day so beautiful, then changes his tone to regret as he realizes his wedding is taking place on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and so his nighttime nuptial bliss will be delayed all the longer, yet last only briefly.
By identifying the exact day of the wedding (the summer solstice, June 20), Spenser allows the reader to fit this poetic description of the ceremony into a real, historical context. As some critics have noted, a timeline of the day superimposed over the verse structure of the entire ode produces an accurate, line-by-line account of the various astronomical events (sunrise, the position of the stars, sunset).
The groom continues his frustrated complaint that the day is too long, but grows hopeful as at long last the evening begins its arrival. Seeing the evening start in the East, he addresses it as “Fayre childe of beauty, glorious lampe of loue,” urging it to come forward and hasten the time for the newlyweds to consummate their marriage.
Again focused on time, the speaker here is able to draw hope from the approach of twilight. He is eager to be alone with his bride, and so invokes the evening star to lead the bride and groom to their bed-chamber.
The groom urges the singers and dancers to leave the wedding, but take the bride to her bed as they depart. He is eager to be alone with his bride and compares the sight of her lying in bed to that of Maia, the mountain goddess with whom Zeus conceived Hermes.
The comparison to Zeus and Maia is significant in that it foreshadows another desire of the groom, procreation. Besides being eager to make love to his new bride, the speaker is also hoping to conceive a child. According to legend and tradition, a child conceived on the summer solstice would grow into prosperity and wisdom, so the connection to the specific day of the wedding cannot be ignored.
Night has come at last, and the groom asks Night to cover and protect them. He makes another comparison to mythology, this time Zeus’ affair with Alcmene and his affair with Night herself.
Here again, Spenser uses a classical allusion to Zeus, mentioning not only the woman with whom Zeus had relations but also their offspring. Alcmene was a daughter of Pleiades and, through Zeus, became the mother of Hercules. The focus has almost shifted away from the bride or the act of consummation to the potential child that may come of this union.
The groom prays that no evil spirits or bad thoughts would reach the newlyweds this night. The entire stanza is a list of possible dangers he pleads to leave them alone.
At the moment the bride and groom are finally alone, the speaker shifts into an almost hysterical litany of fears and dreads. From false whispers and doubts, he declines into superstitious fear of witches, “hob Goblins,” ghosts, and vultures, among others. Although some of these night-terrors have analogues in Greek mythology, many of them come from the folklore of the Irish countryside. Spenser reminds himself and his readers that, as a landed Englishman on Irish soil, there is danger yet present for him, even on his wedding night.
The groom bids silence to prevail and sleep to come when it is the proper time. Until then, he encourages the “hundred little winged loues” to fly about the bed. These tiny Cupids are to enjoy themselves as much as possible until daybreak.
The poet turns back to enjoying his beloved bride, invoking the “sonnes of Venus” to play throughout the night. While he recognizes that sleep can and must come eventually, he hopes to enjoy these “little loves” with his bride as much as possible.
The groom notices Cinthia, the moon, peering through his window and prays to her for a favourable wedding night. He specifically asks that she make his bride’s “chaste womb” fertile this night.
Spenser continues his prayer for conception, this time addressing Cinthia, the moon. He asks her to remember her own love of the “Latmian Shephard” Endymion–a union that eventually produced fifty daughters, the phases of the moon. He specifically calls a successful conception “our comfort,” placing his emotional emphasis upon the fruit of the union above the act of the union itself. The impatient lover of the earlier stanzas has become the would-be father looking for completion in a future generation.
The groom adds more deities to his list of patrons. He asks Juno, wife of Zeus and goddess of marriage, to make their union strong and sacred, then turns her attention toward making it fruitful. So, too, he asks Hebe and Hymen to do the same for them.
While asking Juno to bless the marriage, the speaker cannot refrain from asking for progeny. So, too, he invokes Hebe (goddess of youth) and Hymen to make their wedding night one of fortunate conception as well as wedded bliss. While he does return to the hope or prayer that the marriage will remain pure, the speaker still places conception as the highest priority of the night.
The groom utters an all-encompassing prayer to all the gods in the heavens, that they might bless this marriage. He asks them to give him “large posterity” that he may raise generations of followers to ascend to the heavens in praise of the gods. He then encourages his bride to rest in hope of their becoming parents.
Spenser brings this ode to a major climax, calling upon all the gods in the heavens to bear witness and shower their blessings upon the couple. He states in no uncertain terms that the blessing he would have is progeny–he wishes nothing other than to have a child from this union. In a typical pagan bargaining convention, the speaker assures the gods that if they give him children, these future generations will venerate the gods and fill the earth with “Saints.”
The groom addresses his song with the charge to be a “goodly ornament” for his bride, whom he feels deserves many physical adornments as well. Time was too short to procure these outward decorations for his beloved, so the groom hopes his ode will be an “endlesse moniment” to her.
Spenser follows Elizabeth’s convention in returning to a self-conscious meditation upon his ode itself. He asks that this ode, which he is forced to give her in place of the many ornaments which his bride should have had, will become an altogether greater adornment for her. He paradoxically asks that it be a “for short time” and “endless” monument for her, drawing the reader’s attention back to the contrast between earthly time, which eventually runs out, and eternity, which lasts forever in a state of perfection.
Critical Appreciation of Epithalamion
Spenser’s masterpiece, Epithalamion, recalls the magnificence of The Faerie Queene and is the best poem in the English language. Spenser offers a rich celebration of life and living in it. According to Arnold Sanders of Goucher College, its form is the kind of wedding song developed in Latin, such as Catullus, and sung by a choir accompanying the bride and groom to the groom’s home. It is divided into 23 stanzas of 18 lines each with a different rhyme pattern, with a concluding envoy. Each stanza corresponds to the hours of Midsummer’s Day, as illustrated by A. Kent Hieatt.
Each stanza contains a repetition, six of which, according to John B. Lord, repeat one version or another, resulting in 17 variations to the refrain in which the “echo” resonates from morning to night and to quiet. There are 365 long lines and 68 short lines on the grid. The lengthy lines represent the days of the year (365). The short lines represent the number of weeks in a year (52), multiplied by the number of months in a year (12), multiplied by the number of seasons in a year (4): 52 + 12 + 4 = 68. This intricate calendar (perhaps influenced by his earlier The Shepherd’s Calendar(1579)) is a thematic element.
Spenser employs prominent literary devices such as allusion and conventional motifs. Spenser combines classical Pagan allusions (“And thou great Juno, which with awful might…”) with Christian feeling, continuing an allusion tradition began by Chaucer in English vernacular works (“Of blessed Saints for to increase the count”). Arnold Sanders describes a conventional theme used in the envoy (427-433), which adapts the French “devouring time” motif: “…short time an endlesse moniment.” Spenser writes. Shakespeare later uses and expands on the “devouring time” metaphor (Sonnet 18).
One of the topics in Epithalamion is related to its calendrical structure. The 365 long lines (days) symbolise our everyday experience of existence and living. The 68 short lines (weeks, months, seasons) depict our organisational and cyclical existence and living experience: We measure and designate by weeks; we grow and wane, fortunes and happinesses rise and fall, with the seasons of the year and of our life.
Epithalamion, written as the finale of Amoretti, commemorates Spenser’s marriage to Elizabeth Boyle, daughter of James Boyle, the relation of Earl of Cork, Richard Boyle, on June 11, 1594.
Amoretti narrates their relationship, her disinterest (which she finally overcomes), a breakup, a reunion, and an engagement.
Epithalamion is the conclusion of the storey that began in Amoretti.
When he met Elizabeth, the first three books of The Faerie Queene had just been released.
Amoretti and Epithalamion span the years 1591-1594, and both were published in 1595.
The summary is provided by the major structure. Spenser/the speaker is alone before the wedding and feast that he is looking forward to. He invites the muses and all the guests, from deity to friends to neighbours, to the wedding and feast. The bride arrives with her wedding train, the ceremony is performed, and the feast begins. The groom encourages loud and cheerful mirth until the time comes for them to leave, at which point he bids them farewell. They gradually leave, ushering in a transition from public to private lives for the bride and groom. He then greets Night, the Moon, and Silence, requesting that they keep the pair safe and comfortable by covering them in darkness. The envoy declares that she will live on in his poetry forever.