Ceremony and Tradition
In a work written to celebrate a wedding day (possibly even Edmund Spenser’s own), the marriage ceremony is, appropriately enough, the primary theme. More generally, the poem praises ceremonies and traditions. The poet incorporates the thematic link between past and present with numerous allusions to classical antecedents, stressing numerous individual instances in which an ancient Greek character, whether deity or mortal, is invoked in comparison to a contemporary figure.
The speaker, who is the bridegroom, lavishly praises his bride’s beauty, both with many flattering metaphors and through such an ancient-modern comparison. The link between the classical and modern worlds, however, is not entirely unbroken. The descriptions of the marriage ceremony also emphasize their Christian elements. Thus, the theme of the supremacy of Christianity is also established and carried through the work.
Themes and Meanings
The idea of the epithalamion, or wedding song, was not new with Spenser. Poets as early as Sappho, the Greek woman who wrote in the early sixth century b.c.e., composed such poems, as did many others, such as Pindar and Catallus, in Greek and Latin, in the intervening years. Although each poet naturally brought her or his own vision and style to the wedding song, the “epithalamia” share many images and themes. Spenser was well aware of this tradition and intentionally followed many of its conventions in this poem. One of the most complicated matters for the Renaissance poet who wrote in traditional forms was the balancing of conventional devices with contemporary demands. More specifically, Spenser had to find a way to utilize the conventional gods and goddesses of mythology in a poem about Christian marriage. He could well expect his contemporary readers to be familiar with mythology, especially with the stories recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.), and he uses allusions to these stories as a sort of shorthand. In the first stanza, the poet/ narrator announces that he will sing his love’s praises, and he points out that this is what “Orpheus did for his owne bride.”
Spenser’s readers would know that Orpheus had the power to charm animals and trees with his music and that he almost won his wife back from the underworld with his music. These readers would probably also relate this myth to Spenser’s courtship of his own bride through the powers of his music, by writing the sonnet sequence Amoretti for her.
In effect, the poet tells both those stories simply by using the one word “Orpheus.” This use of mythological allusion, along with the references to Muses and Graces, Hymen and Juno, reinforces the theme of repetition and tradition that is so important to this poem. Women and men have been marrying—and poets have been celebrating marriage—for thousands of years. The emphasis on tradition, and on the wedding guests and attendants, makes clear that marriage is important, not only to the couple, but to all of heaven and earth.
By marrying, and by bringing forth the “fruitfull progeny,” the couple will increase the number of “blessed Saints.” This reference to the saints at the end of the poem culminates a thread of...
(The entire section is 796 words.)