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A epithalamion is a poem written for a bride that is usually presented on her wedding night. It is of Greek deviration. The word prothalamion was coined by Edmund Spencer and was the title of a poem he wrote for the weddings of Katherine and Elizabeth Somerset in 1596. Prothalamion is derived from epithalamion.
Spencer's Epithalamion and Prothalamion both highlight the theme of marriage. However, the Epithalamion celebrates Spencer's own marriage to Elizabeth Boyle, while the Prothalamion is a nuptial song celebrating the respective marriages of Elizabeth and Katherine Somerset (the daughters of the Earl of Worcester) to Henry Gilford and William Peter.
The Epithalamion celebrates the groom and bride's preparations on the day of their marriage. Both the Epithalamion and Prothalamion highlight the importance of nymphs to the wedding preparations. In the Epithalamion, the nymphs cover the bride's path to the bridal bower with flowers. They protect the sanctity of the woods and the lakes so that the bride will have a perfect wedding day. Likewise, in the Prothalamion, the nymphs gather a profusion of flowers in order to braid Katherine and Elizabeth's bridal crowns. Spencer makes full use of pagan images of fertility in both poems.
However, Spencer also celebrates the marriage act in very Christian terms in both works. In the Prothalamion, he wishes Katherine and Elizabeth pleasure in the marriage act and "fruitfull issue" from the consummation of their marriages. The Epithalamion goes still further by describing the bride's physical attractions, and the 10th stanza's paean to the bride's beauty is evocative of the sensual passages from the Song of Solomon.
Her goodly eyes lyke Saphyres shining bright,Her forehead yvory white,Her cheekes lyke apples which the sun hath rudded,Her lips lyke cherryes charming men to byte,Her brest like to a bowle of creame uncrudded,Her paps lyke lyllies budded,Her snowie necke lyke to a marble towre,And all her body like a pallace fayre,
Spenser's Prothalamion (1596) is occasioned by betrothals. It also mediates, as critics have noted, metaphysical, vocational, aesthetic, and political matters. Among these we should continue to include Spenser's assessment of the Earl of Essex's role--widely, albeit not uniformly, acclaimed as heroic--in the Cadiz expedition of 1596. We should also think carefully about issues that emerge when we take fuller account of the London setting, specifically its commercial aspects. Prothalamion is deeply interested, I contend, in the relationship between heroic and commercial ethoi. Evidence from The Faerie Queene (Mammon's rejoinders to Guyon come immediately to mind) and from Spenser's patronage connections indicate that Spenser understood perfectly well that heroic enterprises must be financed, whether those enterprises are directed toward developing trade routes, conquering or defending territory, planting colonies or religion, acquiring commodities or precious metals. But through its refrain, imagery, epideictic purposes, and evocation of the Templar Knights, Prothalamion furnishes evidence to suggest that for Spenser, at levels of understanding unconditioned by pragmatism, commercial and heroic values remain fundamentally incompatible.
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