Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549
Edmund Spenser wrote Epithalamion for his wife, Elizabeth Boyle, whom he married on midsummer’s day, 1594, the longest day of the year. (By the Julian calendar in use in England at that time, midsummer’s day fell on June 11.) The poem’s title comes from the Greek roots epi (“on”) and thalmos (“bridal chamber”). Spenser joins a classical tradition of writers of epithalamia with this poem. He employs classical and Christian allusions and precise formal structure to create a masterpiece unique in English literature, simultaneously personal and universal, sexual and spiritual, temporal and eternal, as it celebrates the beauty of marriage and the marriage bed.
The poem was originally published with Amoretti, a collection of eighty-nine sonnets that express the speaker’s love for his beloved and that are also believed to have been written for Elizabeth Boyle. Epithalamion documents the wedding day itself from start to finish, celebrating the long-awaited consummation of the love described in Amoretti.
In the tradition highly characteristic of early modern (Renaissance) literature, Spenser uses classical allusion heavily. His calling on deities and spirits such as Hymen, Juno, and the muses is an example of Christian neo-Platonism, in which classical figures are appropriated in the service of Christian spirituality. Thus, for example, the groom’s prayer to “Phoebus, father of the Muse” to “let this day let this one day be myne/ . . . / then I thy soverayne praises loud will sing” would be understood as a prayer to God the Father. Spenser highlights the essentially Christian nature of their union by leaving all classical allusion out of stanzas 12-13, where he describes the wedding ceremony itself, the only stanzas in the poem employing exclusively Christian language. Other, less direct biblical allusions to the Song of Solomon, the Psalms, and the Book of Revelation highlight parallels between Spenser’s earthly union and the anticipated wedding of Christ and the Church.
The formal structure of the poem also reflects the Christianized classical poetics and philosophy common in Renaissance literature. The first and second halves contain a symmetry that places the holy union at the center. Stanza 1 is a prologue; stanzas 2-11 prepare for the ceremony; stanzas 12-13, the center of the poem, describe the ceremony itself; stanzas 14-23 describe the postwedding celebration and consummation; stanza 24 is an envoi dedicating the poem. Other thematic parallels between stanzas in the first and second halves of the poem add to its overall sense of unity.
Spenser structured the poem using a unique astronomical pattern first documented in A. Kent Hieatt’s study A Short Time’s Endless Monument: The twenty-four stanzas correspond to the hours in a day, paralleling the progression of the poem through the speaker’s wedding day. The 365 long lines (mostly iambic pentameter) correspond to the days of the year. Night falls at line 300, precisely sixteen stanzas into the poem, corresponding to the sixteen hours of daylight and eight hours of darkness that occur on the summer solstice at the latitude of the southern Irish locale of Spenser’s wedding. The negatives introduced into each stanza’s refrain beginning in stanza 17 underscore the poem’s shift from light to darkness at this point. Spenser used this numerology to emphasize the relationship between particular and universal time and the eternal, spiritual quality of the marriage as a whole.
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