In the "Prothalamion" Spenser celebrates the forthcoming nuptials of Elizabeth and Katherine Somerset, the daughters of the Earl of Worcester. The two sisters are to be married to Henry Guilford and William Petre, respectively. These are clearly big occasions, major highlights of the social season. And so Spenser pulls out all the stops to write a nuptial song befitting such important events.
In time-honored fashion he draws upon ancient mythology to celebrate the forthcoming nuptials. He starts by referring to Zephyrus, one of the ancient wind gods:
Calm was the day and through the trembling air
The sweet breathing Zephyrus did softly play.
As the speaker stands by the River Thames composing his poem the scene is suddenly transformed into something out of ancient mythology. A group of nymphs is out and about with baskets, collecting pretty flowers for the happy couples.
A further reference to ancient mythology comes when Spenser relates the two swans gliding down the Thames to the myth of Jupiter and Leda, when the king of the gods came down to earth to woo the princess Leda in the guise of a swan.
In "Epithalamion" Spenser celebrates his own marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. References are also made to nymphs, but there are also references to Christianity. As this nuptial song relates to Spenser's own marriage, he can use more personal detail, such as that relating to sex. In Stanza 17, for instance, the speaker is quite explicit in describing the bridegroom's desire for his bride:
Behold how goodly my faire love does ly In proud humility; Like unto Maia, when as Jove her tooke, In Tempe, lying on the flowry gras, Twixt sleepe and wake, after she weary was, With bathing in the Acidalian brooke.
Note also the use of pagan mythology in this extract. Yet as Spenser is engaging in a Christian marriage with his bride, he must also pay the appropriate respect to God for the blessings of his nuptials:
And let the roring Organs loudly play The praises of the Lord in lively notes, The whiles with hollow throates The Choristers the joyous Antheme sing, That al the woods may answere and their eccho ring.
Note however, that even here, pagan imagery isn't far away. Spenser is here referring to Echo, a nymph cursed by the goddess Hera to repeat the last word she heard as punishment for distracting her from catching her philandering husband Zeus. Spenser's love for his bride is so strong that it echoes throughout the forest just like the words of the famous nymph.