Edmund Spenser published Epithalamion in 1595 (Hollander and Kermode 323). In Greek epithalamion means marriage-song (literally "at the wedding chamber".) Spenser took his form for this poem from the wedding songs of the first-century-BC Roman poet Catullus. Spenser changed the form significantly to include Christian symbols with the pagan imagery, and also had the singer of the song be the bridegroom himself (unlike Catullus' songs -- Hollander, ibid.) Spenser wrote this poem for the occasion of his own wedding to his second wife, Elizabeth Boyle.
The poem runs 433 lines. It is divided into twenty-four parts, twenty-three stanzas and an "envoi', to mark the twenty-four hours of the wedding day. The progression of time is marked, more or less, through these stanzas, and most of the time Spenser addresses the Muses (the Nine Muses of Greek and Roman mythology who represent the various arts) and wedding guests. Though this piece was not set to music, it is supposed to be a song, and everywhere in it there are references to singing ("So I unto my selfe alone will sing/The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring." lines 19-20)
Spenser starts the poem by asking the muses to help him to describe the almost indescribable beauty of his wife-to-be as she rises on the morning of their wedding. Then Spenser invokes the sun to bless the union, but not to burn his or his wife's face with sunburn. When she appears, her beauty is dazzling "Her goodly eyes lyke Saphyres shinging bright,/Her forehead yvory white,/Her cheekes lyke apples which the sun hath rudded,/Her lips lyke cherries charming men to byte," (lines 171-4) But not only is the bride a perfect beauty on the outside, Spenser says, but her inward beauty matches and surpasses it.
The ceremony takes place, and the bride blushes in her innocence and purity. There is much rejoicing, and one stanza is devoted to the wedding feast and dancing. Then, as the married couple goes to bed, Spenser asks for the night to cover them and give them privacy. "Spread thy broad wing over my love and me,/That no man may us see,/And in thy sable mantle us enwrap,/From feare of perrill and foule horror free." (319-22) The final celestial body the poet addresses is the moon, whom he asks for blessings of children and happiness.
There is an underlying numerical structure to the poem. Besides the 24 stanzas (23 plus an "envoi") standing for the hours, there are 365 long lines (Hollander, ibid) in the poem, representing the days of the year. There are eight stanzas devoted to the hours of the night, for that is the number of hours on the day that the wedding took place -- the summer solstice. Spenser frames this poem not only as a personal event, but a ceremony expressing the harmony and rightness of nature.
Source: The Literature of Renaissance England. John Hollander and Frank Kermode, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Epithalamion is an ode written to commemorate the nuptials of the speaker and his bride. The song begins before dawn and progresses through the wedding ceremony and into the consummation night of the newlywed couple. Throughout Epithalamion, the speaker marks time by referencing the physical movements of the wedding party, the positions of the sun and other celestial bodies, and the light and darkness that fill the day.
Although firmly within the classical tradition, Epithalamion takes its setting and several of its images from Ireland, where 's wedding to Elizabeth Boyle actually took place. Some critics have seen in this Irish connection a commentary within the poem of the proper relationship between ruling England (the groom) and subject Ireland (the bride). Spenser's love for the Irish countryside is clear through his vivid descriptions of the natural world surrounding the couple, while his political views regarding English supremacy is hinted at in the relationship between the bride and groom themselves.
Other critics have seen Spenser's gift to his bride not simply as a celebration of their wedding day, but a poetic argument for the kind of husband-wife relationship he expects the two of them to have.