Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

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.

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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?

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

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 wedding musicians play, boys run through the streets shouting, and the wedding guests clamor until finally, in stanza 9 (nearly 150 lines into the poem), the bride appears. She is “like Phoebe,” like “some angell,” like “some mayden Queene.” Addressing the women around the bride, the poet declares that, much as they admire her physical beauty, they would stand amazed at the “inward beauty” of her spirit. “Open the temple gates,” the poet demands, and the marriage ceremony actually takes place, in stanzas 12 and 13—the center of the poem.

During the ceremony, the bride blushes in purity and modesty, impressing even the angels. When the ceremony is over, the groom’s thoughts turn to celebration, to wine and dancing—but only for one stanza. By stanza 15 he is impatient for the wedding day to end and the wedding night to begin. “Ah when will this long weary day have end,/ And lende me leave to come unto my love?” he asks. Again he turns his attention to the Muses and nymphs, asking them now to stop celebrating and to help the bride prepare for bed. Repeatedly he complains that the day has been long and tiring.

In stanzas 18 through 20 he asks the night to provide a mantle of privacy for the couple and cautions various creatures to remain quiet so as not to disturb them as they enjoy “sweet snatches of delight.” When the moon rises, in stanza 21, the poet asks her and other goddesses and gods to bless the couple with happiness and fertility.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

Epithalamion is a nuptial song, and references to singing are everywhere in the poem. At the end of the first stanza, the poet declares that he will sing his love’s praises, and “The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring.” Each of the twenty-three stanzas ends with some variation of this refrain. For example, in stanza 8 the wedding guests sing to greet the bride, “That al the woods them answer and theyr eccho ring”; in stanza 19, the groom asks for quiet, begging the night creatures not to sing, “Ne let the woods them answer, nor theyr eccho ring.” This refrain helps mark the passing of each stanza. The repetition also reinforces the unity among the stanzas, which are not strictly regular in length or in rhyme scheme.

Based on the Italian canzone, the stanzas are not uniform in structure, but they all use similar devices to enhance their musical qualities. The simple rhyme scheme, for example, is reminiscent of the ballad form, easily remembered and sung (unlike the complicated Spenserian stanza of The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). Each stanza contains three lines of iambic trimeter, which appear abruptly after four or five lines of iambic pentameter. The effect is of three short verses of a song within each stanza. Because nearly all the lines are end-stopped, the rhythm is even sharper, and the refrain, in iambic hexameter, makes unambiguous the notion that this is a song.

A wedding is a joyful occasion for everyone involved, and here that joy is expressed through singing. The bride is awakened by the birds singing carols in praise of love, and the three Graces sing to her as they dress her for the wedding. Out in the streets, minstrels are playing, while damsels are singing and dancing. As the marriage ceremony begins, the tone of the poem is for a brief time solemn. The bride comes into the holy temple “with trembling steps and humble reverence” to take part in the “sacred ceremonies.” Even here, the music is not solemn, but joyful: “the roring Organs loudly play/ The praises of the Lord in lively notes,” while the choir sings a “joyous Antheme.”

The message is clear; marriage is a holy sacrament, to be taken seriously and reverently. Yet it is also a wondrous miracle, and celebration and joy are entirely appropriate as well. The connection between holiness and joyful music is made most clear in stanza 15, as the wedding celebration begins to wind down: “Ring ye the bels, ye yong men of the towne,/ And leave your wonted labors for this day:/ This day is holy.”

From this point on, although the refrain continues to appear at each stanza, the poet/narrator refers to music only to wish aloud that it would cease. Although the musicality of the poem itself continues, with the strong rhythm, the long and short lines, and the complex rhyme schemes, the time for celebrating the wedding day with song ends when darkness falls.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

On the day of his wedding, the poem’s speaker calls upon the muses. They have often inspired him with verse, he says, so he now asks them to assist him in singing the praises of his love and preparing for the wedding. It is not yet dawn when he asks the muses to wake his bride after gathering lilies, roses, and flowers of all kinds to prepare her bower and her path for the moment when she awakes. The poet then calls directly upon the nymphs who care for various facets of nature’s beauty to come to help prepare his bride and to sing to her.

The groom next addresses his bride herself, urging her to awake. All nature is singing in affirmation, he tells her, of the day’s joyous event. Asking why she still sleeps, he invokes various divine attendants to assist in preparation. He prays to Phoebus Apollo, father of the muses, asking that this particular day be given to the poet and promising to then praise Phoebus with loud singing.

The groom turns his description to his bride’s procession and her beauty. Much music, singing, and dancing anticipates her coming forth. She appears, dressed in white that he says is so appropriate to her virginity that one might think she were an angel. The poet tells the daughters of merchants to consider his bride’s beauty: her golden hair, her modest countenance, her eyes, cheeks, lips, breasts, neck, and figure, shining in perfect purity so that other virgins stand in amazement to look at her. Her inner beauty, he tells them, is even more glorious. The virtues of love, chastity, faith, respect, and modesty rule her heart and keep temptation far from her mind. If only they could see those invisible virtues, he says, they would be filled with wonder and song.

The groom then calls for the church to be opened for the bride’s entrance to the ceremony itself. He instructs the attendant maidens to observe and learn from his bride’s reverence. The bride is brought to the altar for the ceremony, as music plays in praise of the Lord. She blushes as the priest blesses her; even the angels attending the altar are distracted by the beauty of her face. The poet asks his bride why she so shyly takes his hand in oath.

Once the ceremony is complete, the celebration commences. The new husband cries to all those in attendance, telling them to rejoice, to let the feasting begin, to pour the wine, and to ring the bells. He laments that this day, midsummer’s day, is the longest day and shortest night of the year; thus, the hours until they can consummate the marriage are passing too slowly. At last, the evening star appears, twinkling with gladness for their sakes.

The celebration concludes as darkness approaches. The groom calls for his bride to be escorted to the bower. He addresses the night, asking it to wrap the newlyweds together in peaceful darkness, free of fear or trouble or tears. He urges that nothing, whether whispers, dreams, evil spirits, birds, or frogs, make any disturbance, calling for complete silence as they spend their first night together. The groom next turns his song into a prayer for a blessing upon his bride’s womb and their offspring, petitioning various deities overseeing marriage or procreation, including Juno, Genius, and Hymen. He closes the poem by addressing the song itself, commissioning it to serve as a decoration for and monument to his bride.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355

Further Reading

Greenlaw, Edwin, et al., eds. The Works of Edmund Spenser—A Variorum Edition: The Minor Poems, Vol. II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1947. This significant critical edition of the poem (along with all of Spenser’s works) offers detailed annotations with explanations, cross references, and analogues for key words in nearly every line of the poem. Appendixes provide excerpts from major critical and historical treatments of the poem, as well as its sources, poetics, and influence.

Hadfield, Andrew, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Spenser. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Includes a wide range of essays covering Spenser’s major poetry groupings, historical and cultural influences, biography, and influence. Epithalamion is discussed among the “shorter poems.”

Hieatt, A. Kent. Short Time’s Endless Monument: The Symbolism of the Numbers in Edmund Spenser’s “Epithalamion.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. A seminal study of specific numerical patterns in the poem as an essential elements of Spenser’s primary meaning. Includes an annotated text of the poem.

Larsen, Kenneth J., ed. Edmund Spenser’s “Amoretti” and “Epithalamion”: A Critical Edition. Tempe, Ariz.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1997. This critical edition of the poem provides a useful introduction and a thorough commentary with excellent glosses, cross references, and a detailed explication. An appendix provides a listing of scripture readings and lessons from The Book of Common Prayer for 1594 for the dates covered by the two poems.

Oram, William A. Edmund Spenser. New York: Simon & Schuster/Macmillan, 1997. Accessible for students and other nonspecialists, this chronological overview of Spenser’s poetry offers a chapter on each major phase of Spenser’s career, including one on the Amoretti and Epithalamion that details sources, major themes, and specifics of genre.

Van Es, Bart, ed. A Critical Companion to Spenser Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Collection of essays touching on various aspects of Spenser’s life and poetry, including his representations of politics, religion, and women. An essay titled “Shorter Verse Published 1590-95” includes detailed discussion of Epithalamion. A final essay on resources for Spenser studies and an extensive bibliography make the volume a useful starting point for further research.

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