Critics say Epithalamion is Spenser's masterpiece, recalling the greatness of The Faerie Queene, and the greatest poem in the English language. In it, Spenser creates a complex celebration of life and living. Its form, as explained by Arnold Sanders, Goucher College, is the genre of wedding song originated in Latin, e.g., Catullus, sung by a choir accompanying the bride and groom to the groom's home. It comprises 23 stanzas of 18 lines and varying rhyme schemes, with a final envoy. Each stanza, shown by A. Kent Hieatt, corresponds to the hours of Midsummer's Day.
Each stanza has a refrain, 6 of which, John B. Lord states, repeat one version or another, resulting in 17 variations to the refrain during which the "echo" rings from morning to night and to silence. There are 365 long lines and 68 short lines. The long lines correspond to the days of a year (365). The short lines correspond to the number of weeks in a year (52), added to the number of months in a year (12), added to the number of seasons in a year ( 4): 52 + 12 + 4 = 68. This complex calendar (perhaps inspired by his earlier The Shepherd's Calendar (1579)) represents a thematic element.
Prominent literary devices Spenser uses are allusion and conventional motif. Following an allusion tradition begun by Chaucer in English vernacular poems, Spenser combines classical Pagan allusions ("And thou great Juno, which with awful might...") with Christian sentiment ("Of blessed Saints for to increase the count"). Conventional motif use occurs, described by Arnold Sanders, in the envoy (427-433), which modifies the French "devouring time" motif: Spenser writes, "...short time an endlesse moniment." Shakespeare later employs and develops the "devouring time" motif (Sonnet 18).
Of the themes in Epithalamion, one connects with its calendrical structure. Thematically, the 365 long lines (days) represent our daily experience of life and living. The 68 short lines (weeks, month, seasons), represent our organizational and cyclical experience of life and living: We accomplish by weeks; we measure and designate by months and years; we grow and wane, fortunes and happinesses rise and fall, with the seasons of the year and of our lives.
Written as the culmination of Amoretti, Epithalamion celebrates the marriage on June 11, 1594 of Spenser to his second wife Elizabeth Boyle, daughter of James Boyle, relation of Earl of Cork, Richard Boyle. Amoretti chronicles their courtship, her disinterestedness (eventually won over) a rupture and a reunion and engagement. Epithalamion is the resolution of the tale begun in Amoretti. The first three books of The Faerie Queene had just been published when he met Elizabeth. Amoretti and Epithalamion cover the time from early 1591 to 1594; both were published in 1595.
The major structure gives the summary. Spenser/the speaker is alone before the wedding and feast, which he anticipates. He summons to the wedding and feast the muses and all the guests from divinity to friends to neighbors. The bride comes with her wedding train; the wedding is made; and the feast begins. The groom encourages loud and joyful merriment until the time is past, then he bids them leave. They slowly leave bringing a transition from public life to private lives as the bride and groom are now alone. He then welcomes Night, the Moon, and Silence, bidding that they cover the couple with the dark, safe and comfortable. The envoy proclaims that she will be remembered eternally in his poetry.