Edmund Spenser

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What are the major themes and examples of imagery in "Prothalamion"?

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Written as a song honoring the marriage of Elizabeth and Katherine Somerset, Edmund Spenser's poem "Prothalamion" centers its theme of celebration around the River Thames, which is a key symbol and setting. Images and ideas of beauty surround the Thames, such as nymphs gathering flower crowns for the two sisters. The speaker also invokes other classical deities as a way of elevating the poem.

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"Prothalamion" by Edmund Spenser is a long verse "written as a wedding song for the daughters of a duke." Rather than write with a divergence of thought, Spenser uses a continuous thought. Also, rather than have the narrator as the wedding director or a guest as is traditional, the poet himself is the narrator. But, in typical Renaissance style, he addresses the Muses and alludes to Titan, Jove, and Venus. "The stanzas of the poem were based on the model of the Italian canzone."

There is a sense of completeness conveyed as the verse begins before dawn and progresses through the wedding and into the wedding night with the couple consummating their marriage with images of the sun, night, which the poet calls upon to watch over him and his bride. Furthering this sense of completeness is the motif of pairing as mortal man is paired with the supernatural--"And let fair Venus, that is Queen of Love,/With her Heart-quelling Son upon you smile--Christian symbols are included with pagan imagery, and Nature is paired with the supernatural--

Them [the swans] heavenly born, or to be that same Pair
Which through the Sky draw Venus' silver Teem:

In Spenser's verse, there are several themes:

  • The Pastoral and the Sea, Rivers,and Streams - Several lines are devoted to the beauty of nature, among them these: 

Along the Shoar of silver streaming Thames,
Whose rushy Bank, the which his River hems,
Was painted all with variable Flowers,

  • Marriage and Companionship: 

Receiv'd those two fair Brides, their Love's delight,
Which at th' appointed Tide,
Each one did make his Bride,

  • Mythology and Christian Folklore: "Nor Jove himself when he a Swan would be"
  • The Political - For example, Spenser alludes to his fall from the graces of the Earl of Leicaster and corruption in the court:

In Princes Courts, and Expectations vain
Of idle Hopes, which still do fly away,

Certainly, Spenser's mellifluous verse, its balance and lyricism, as well as his splendid ability to summon resplendent images of gods, natural beauty and grace, astronomical being, and prevailing love throughout the lines makes "Prothalamion" not just a beautiful wedding poem, but also a celebration of the resplendent images of joy.

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