An epithalamion is a song or poem to celebrate a marriage. Usually addressed to the bride or groom or both, it is the poetic equivalent of the “best man’s” speech at a wedding party—it speaks of the joyous “marriage” of natural attractions, of the cycle of generations, of the universe’s plan, etc. There are several noteworthy example in literature. Spenser’s “Epithalamion” (1580?) and e.e. cummings’ “Epithalamion” (1923) are two exceptional examples. Edmund Spenser begins by calling on the bridesmaids to waken the bride at dawn, and ends with the night’s consummation (“conceald through covert night”); he calls on several Greek gods to bless the union (in the Renaissance tradition), and tells the gathered wedding party that “Juno, which with awful might/The lawes of wedlock still dost patronize” will be watching over this marriage. There are symbols of virginity and of childbirth.
Cummings’ “Epithalamion” uses Nature as a comparison to human marriage, with Earth and Sky the marrying couple, thus celebrating Spring as a “marriage” that brings life forth: (“Thou aged unreluctant earth who dost/with quivering continual thighs invite/the thrilling rain..”), thereby writing a paean to Spring at the same time, one of cummings’ favorite subjects.
In the early 1590s, the widowed Edmund Spenser wooed and won Elizabeth Boyle, who married him in 1594. The following year, Spenser published a small volume that included the sonnet sequence Amoretti and the Epithalamion, a celebration of the success of his courtship.
An epithalamion is a wedding song whose Greek name conveys that it was sung on the threshold of the bridal chamber. Spenser follows the conventions of this wedding song, which include an invocation of the Muses. For instance, in the first line, he alludes to the "learned sisters," who are the Muses, and he mentions Phoebus, "the father of the Muse." In addition, there is the description of the bride's procession, the religious ceremony, the dancing and singing at the wedding celebration, the preparations for the wedding night, and the consummation of the marriage.
In lovely, extended, and flowing stanzas, Spenser follows the Greek conventions, though he adapts them to his small-town Irish setting and folklore. However, he clearly innovates as he begins not as the traditional admiring observer, but as the bridegroom as well as the poet: "So I unto my selfe alone will sing" (l.16).
With its rich, subtle structure, Spenser's "Epithalamion" seems to depict more than a single day of celebration. Beyond this particular event, the elaborate poem is itself "a goodly ornament" (l.432) and an "endlesse monument" of art to the passing day that it celebrates.