what are the symbols used in spenser's epithalamion?

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Payal Khullar | College Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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The Epithalamion is a beautiful love poem by the famous Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser that celebrates his intense courtship and marriage to Elizabeth Boyle.

Epithalamion is known for its rich and powerful sensual symbolism and imagery, which have a reflection from classical myths and legends. This can be illustrated by the following examples:

A striking feature of the poem is its 24 stanzas as well as a total of 365 lines, which represent 24 hours of a day and 365 days of a year. Moreover, the first 16 stanzas have a celebratory tone while the last 8 have a restful tone, which again correspond to the 16 hours of Irish daytime at Summer Solstice and the remaining 8 hours of night. 

NOW ceasse ye damsels your delights forepast;
Enough is it, that all the day was youres:
Now day is doen, and night is nighing fast:
Now bring the Bryde into the brydall boures.
Now night is come, now soone her disaray,
And in her bed her lay;
Lay her in lillies and in violets,

The description of physical beauty of his lover, Elizabeth (and her body parts) also makes use of powerful symbolism. For instance, her cheeks are referred to as red apples, her eyes as Saphyres (that shine very brightly), her lips like cherries, her breasts like a bowl of white cream, and the nipples like lilies etc. The poem, is in fact, full of such seductive descriptions.

Consider the lines “The merry Larke hir matins sings…dayes merriment…” from the 5th stanza. Spenser makes use of the conventional symbol of courting birds. The birds are singing their mating tunes, which seems to be a part of the poet’s wedding tunes.

The “daughters of delight” from the 6th stanza refers to bridesmaids who represent blessings for the marriage.

In stanza 8, the mention of Phoebe is a symbol of brightness and virginity (Phoebe, as we know, is the chaste goddess of moon and virginity).

Spenser compares the awe inspired by his beloved's true beauty to the awe inspired by "Medusaes mazeful hed," a mythological woman who turned everyone who dared to gaze at her hairs into a rock. This is a symbol to represent the beauty and powerful virtues of his beloved. Spenser considers the spiritual beauty of his lover to be more precious than her outer, physical beauty.

BVT if ye saw that which no eyes can see,
The inward beauty of her liuely spright,
Garnisht with heauenly guifts of high degree,
Much more then would ye wonder at that sight,
And stand astonisht lyke to those which red
Medusaes mazeful hed.
There dwels sweet loue and constant chastity,
Vnspotted fayth and comely womanhood,
Regard of honour and mild modesty,

“Triumph of our victory” from the stanza 14 alludes to the end of the marraige ceremony, which leads in to the wedding merriment, "Make feast therefore now all this liue long day," and then to day's end preceding the restful, blissful bridal night.

Now al is done; bring home the bride againe,
bring home the triumph of our victory,
Bring home with you the glory of her gaine,
With ioyance bring her and with iollity.
Neuer had man more ioyfull day then this,
Whom heauen would heape with blis.

The 19th stanza gives a mention to “Frogs” and “Owls”. Spenser is invoking a veil of silence for his bride's wedding night, a restful silence of bliss in which not even the woods answer back a distratcting sound.

Let none of these theyr drery accents sing;
Ne let the woods them answer, nor theyr eccho ring.

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