The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.