Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion was published towards the end of the sixteenth century and is an ode written to his bride on the occasion of their wedding in 1594. It describes their wedding day from before dawn to the end of the night. To analyze the work—as with any poem—various aspects can be considered, including title, characters, structure, form, tone, imagery, symbolism, and themes.
Because the language is old-fashioned, Epithalamion can seem confusing to readers today. It also relies heavily on references to Greek mythology, so a little background knowledge about those characters will help in a good analysis of the poem. It begins by appealing to the muses—“ Ye learned sisters”—and continues by referencing nymphs and Hymen (the god of marriage ceremonies). There is mention of Phoebus when Spenser writes, “O fayrest Phoebus, father of the Muse." He also mentions Medusa and Bacchus, the god of wine: “Crowne ye God Bacchus with a coronall." For people living at that time of publication, these names would be more familiar references, so the poet is probably aiming to create a shared sense of recognition and understanding with their use.
In terms of what happens, the poem describes the poet asking the muses to help him during the day of his wedding. He waits for his bride to wake up and then praises her in the section that begins, “My love is now awake out of her dreames." See for example lines like, “Tell me ye merchants daughters did ye see /So fayre a creature in your towne before? / So sweet, so lovely, and so mild as she." As the wedding day progresses, the poet describes the wedding ceremony: “Harke how the Minstrels gin to shrill aloud / Their merry Musick that resounds from far." He goes on to discuss his nerves about the consummation of the marriage, and he finally asks for blessings for them and their future family.
To analyze the poem successfully, it would be a good idea to relate what happens in the poem to its structure. For example, it contains 24 sections and details 24 hours, and while it is not strictly one hour per section, it does move through the day in order. Think too about references to music and festivities and joy, descriptions of place and emotions, and the way the poet creates both a public and a very private narrative of his wedding day. Who is the narrator speaking to? What is he feeling? What are the roles of the Greek gods? How do they relate to the Christian marriage ceremony?
Epithalamion is a poem of 433 iambic lines of varying lengths, divided into twenty-three stanzas and an envoi—twenty-four sections in all. The title means, literally, “at the nuptial chamber,” from the Greek (epi and thalanos); the poem celebrates the twenty-four hours of the poet’s wedding day. The poem is written in the first person, and much of it is addressed to the Muses, nymphs, other bridal attendants, and wedding guests. The twenty-four sections do not correspond precisely to the twenty-four hours of the wedding day, yet the poem moves chronologically through the entire day.
In the first stanza, the poet speaks to the Muses, who have often inspired him in the past, asking that they “Helpe me mine owne loves prayses to resound.” Edmund Spenser quite often begins his works this way, with the poet/narrator requesting divine assistance as he undertakes a task that is beyond his mortal skills. His bride is so magnificent, it is implied, that he cannot find words to describe her. The next three stanzas anticipate the awakening of the bride on her wedding day. The poet beckons the Muses to wake her, and to summon nymphs from land and sea to bring garlands and flowers to adorn the bride and her chamber. In stanzas 5 and 6, she awakens and is dressed for the wedding.
“Now is my love all ready forth to come,” the poet announces, and he is ready, too. He then invokes the sun, praying that its lifegiving rays will brighten this joyful day without burning his bride’s bright “sunshyny face.” The...
(The entire section is 2,382 words.)