Epithalamion (poem)

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The title page from the first edition of Amoretti and Epithalamion, printed by William Ponsonby in 1595.

Edmund Spenser's Epithalamion is an ode written to his bride, Elizabeth Boyle, on their wedding day in 1594. It was first published in 1595 in London by William Ponsonby as part of a volume entitled Amoretti and Epithalamion. Written not long since by Edmunde Spenser. The volume included the sequence of 89 sonnets (Amoretti), along with a series of short poems called Anacreontics and the Epithalamion, a public poetic celebration of marriage.[1] Only six complete copies of this first edition remain today, including one at the Folger Shakespeare Library and one at the Bodleian Library.

The ode begins with an invocation to the Muses to help the groom, and moves through the couple's wedding day, from Spenser's impatient hours before dawn while waiting for his bride to wake up, to the late hours of night after Spenser and Boyle have consummated their marriage (wherein Spenser's thoughts drift towards the wish for his bride to have a fertile womb, so that they may have many children).

Spenser meticulously records the hours of the day from before dawn to late into the wedding night: its 24 stanzas represent the hours of Midsummer Day. The ode's content progresses from the enthusiasm of youth to the concerns of middle age by beginning with high hopes for a joyful day and ending with an eye toward the speaker's legacy to future generations.

Edmund Spenser[edit]

Edmund Spenser was a London-born English poet who moved to Ireland, known for works such as The Faerie Queene, The Shepheardes Calender, Epithalamion and Amoretti. Epithalamion goes in hand with Amoretti. The two work together to explore the development of the romantic relationship between Spenser and his bride Elizabeth Boyle. Spenser was a writer in the Elizabethan Era, and a devotee of the Protestant church.[2] Spenser married Boyle, who was much younger than him, the same year his previous wife died. He is considered one of the greatest poets of the English language.


Spenser lived from 1552 to 1599. Works in this time period are considered Early Modern literature which spanned from the Baroque period to the Age of Enlightenment. It saw writers such as Miguel de Cervantes, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift in Europe. He was also considered to be a part of the Elizabethan era.[3] It coincided with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and is considered to be the literary height of the English Renaissance. It saw poetic forms such as love sonnets, the pastoral, and the allegorical epic.


Epithalamion is a poem celebrating a marriage. An epithalamium is a song or poem written specifically for a bride on her way to the marital chamber. In Spenser's work he is spending the day-24 hours- anxiously awaiting to marry Elizabeth Boyle. The poem describes the day in detail. The couple wakes up, and Spenser begs the muses to help him on his artistic endeavor for the day. He asks the nymphs to wake his sleeping love so the day can begin. Spenser spends a majority of the poem praising his bride to be. Which is depicted as both innocent and lustful.

When she finally wakes, the two head to the church. Hymen Hymenaeus is sung by the minstrels at the festivities. As the ceremony begins, Spenser shifts from praising Greek Gods and beings to Christian language to praise Elizabeth. After the ceremony, Spenser becomes even more anxious at the thought of consummating the marriage. Spenser then rebukes any idea of evil that could ruin their new found happiness. Spenser asks for blessings for childbearing, fidelity and all things good at the end.[4]


Epithalamion follows a rhyme a scheme of ABABCC, DEDEFF, and so on (except the 15th stanza.). The structure is 24 stanzas, each with either 18 lines or 19 (15th stanza has 17 lines). The last stanza is an envoy(a short formal stanza which is appended to a poem by way of conclusion) with 7 lines. There are 433 lines in total.


There are 24 stanzas and 433 lines in the poem. There are 365 longer lines and 68 shorter lines. The 365 longer lines represent the year leading up to Spenser's wedding day.[5] The poem starts at midnight of the day of the wedding, as Spenser grows anxious of the future he is embracing. Every stanza is an hour of that day, eventually leading to the event and then to the consummation. Every hour is described in detail; from what is being worn to where the wedding is taking place to Spenser's own thoughts. The 24 stanzas represent the 24 hours in a day and the 365 longer lines represent every day in a year. Spenser's wedding is one day; the first 16 stanzas are the day time and the last 8 are the night time, and the relationship with Boyle has been occurring for a year.


In the 15th stanza, Spenser changes the structure.[6] Throughout the poem, the stanzas are structured with 18 or 19 lines. In the 15th, there is a line missing. The rhyming structure typically goes ABABCC, then DEDEFF and so on. But stanza 15 is FEGGHH. This might have been done to keep the onomatopoeia of the poem or to keep the structure of the 365 lines as a metaphor for a year.

Greek Mythology[edit]

Most of the poem contains Greek Mythology references. Here are some examples and definitions of the mythologies [7]..


Spenser calls on the Muses to help him in his artistic endeavors on this special day.

"Ye learned sisters which have oftentimes Beene to me ayding, others to adorne:"

Greek muses are the inspirational goddesses of the arts. Spenser calls on them to help him make the perfect poem for his bride. He calls on them later in the poem as well.


Spenser compares his love to that of the mythology of Orpheus.

"Ne let the same of any be envide: So Orpheus did for his owne bride, So I unto my selfe alone will sing,"

Orpheus was a legendary musician and poet (like Spenser) who could charm all living things. The story that is most known is about the love for his wife. After Orpheus' wife Eurydice died, Orpheus traveled to the Underworld. Hades was charmed by Orpheus, and allowed Eurydice to travel back up to Earth under one condition: Orpheus must walk in front of Eurydice and not look back at her the entire trip. Anxiety got the best of Orpheus, and right when they reached Earth he looked back, forgetting that they both needed to be in the upper world and that Eurydice was not in it. Eurydice was lost a second time forever.

Spenser uses the myth to insist he would do anything for his bride. Even travel to the underworld.


Spenser states his love will echo for all to hear, it will be repeated everywhere.

"So I unto my selfe alone will sing, The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring."

Echo was a nymph who would attempt to protect Zeus when Hera would try to catch him having affairs. Echo would try to distract Hera with chatter. When Hera caught Zeus in the act, she made it so Echo could only repeat the last words she said. Echo was never able to tell Narcissus that she was in love with him, and had to watch from the side lines as he fell in love with someone else.

Spenser could be referencing Echo from the mythology, or the term Echo. But the word Echo derives from the Greek mythology. His love is all he hears echoed back, because it is all he can speak.


Spenser wants his bride to wake, and calls on Hymen to do the duties of this day.

"Bid her awake; for Hymen is awake, And long since ready forth his maske to move,"

Hymen was the god of marriage ceremonies. Spenser calls him to his side on this day so that it will be perfect. He calls on him later in the poem to make sure their marriage will last.


Spenser needs the nymphs to make the location of the wedding, and nature, beautiful.

"Bring with you all the Nymphes that you can heare Both of the rivers and the forrests greene: And of the sea that neighbours to her neare, Al with gay girlands goodly wel beseene."

Nymphs animate nature and the land. Spenser calls on them so that the ceremony will be beautiful.


This is referencing the myth of Tithonus.

"Wake, now my love, awake; for it is time, The Rosy Morne long since left Tithones bed,"

Tithonus was a mortal who the Goddess Eos fell in love with. They had a child and Eos asked Zeus to give Tithonus immortality. But she forget to ask Zeus for eternal youth. So while Eos stayed young, Tithonus withered in old age. Spenser is excited at the thought of growing old with Elizabeth. He is thinking of their future together, and every hour Spenser waits for the ceremony to begins actually leads to the rest of the couple's life.


Phoebus is another name for the God Apollo.

"All ready to her silver coche to clyme, And Phoebus gins to shew his glorious hed."

Apollo is the God of music, poetry, truth, Sun and more. In this reference, Apollo is the Sun. The day has begun, and Elizabeth needs to wake up.


Spenser is taken back by the sight of his bride.

"Garnisht with heavenly guifts of high degree, Much more then would ye wonder at that sight, And stand astonisht lyke to those which red Medusaes mazeful hed."

Spenser is lost in his bride's beauty. Much like anyone who comes across Medusa.


Mavis is dialect for thrush, which comes from the tale of Philomela in Greek mythology.

"The merry Larke hir mattins sings aloft, The thrush replyes, the Mavis descant playes,"

Philomela had her tongue cut out when she tried to cry out after her sister's(Pronce) husband (Tereus) raped her. Her rapist cut out her tongue and left her. Philomela then wove a tapestry to tell her sister. The two sisters then served Philomela's dead child to Tereus. When Tereus found out, he chased the sisters. When they came to a cliff they prayed to the Gods and were turned into birds. Pronce was turned into a swallow and Philomela a Nightingale.

The mythical Mavis/Nightingale is singing on this day, in a return to a mate. There are many birds singing to mates in this stanza, and it comes out to the tune of the couples wedding song. Although it comes from a darker myth, it is still a connection to the mythology Spenser is building.


Hesperus is the evening star in Greek mythology

"With darksome cloud, now shew theyr goodly beames More bright then Hesperus his head doth rere."

The day is ending, and Hesperus is making an appearance.

Cyprian Queene and Venus[edit]

The Cyprian Queen is another term for Aphrodite, who is also referred to as Venus.

"And ye three handmayds of the Cyprian Queene, The which doe still adorne her beauties pride, Helpe to addorne my beautifullest bride: And as ye her array, still throw betweene Some graces to be seene, And as ye use to Venus, to her sing,"

Spenser and Elizabeth are about to come together as one. The couple needs the blessing of the Goddess of Love, for their marriage to last and be full of love.


Phoebe was associated with the Moon in mythology.

"Loe where she comes along with portly pace Lyke Phoebe from her chamber of the East, Arysing forth to run her mighty race,"

The Moon is rising, the day is ending. Elizabeth is compared to Phoebe, she is coming down the aisle like the moon rises. She is white, like the moon, emphasizing her virginity and beauty.


Bacchus is the Roman version of the Greek's Dionysus. They are the gods of wine, agriculture and fertility.

"Crowne ye God Bacchus with a coronall, And Hymen also crowne with wreathes of vine, And let the Graces daunce unto the rest; For they can doo it best:"

Spenser is asking for help from Bacchus in fertility with Elizabeth. They wish to have a child. Spenser is envisioning the rest of their life. He has moved on from the anxiety of every hour.


This is the constellation between Cancer and Gemini.

"When once the Crab behind his back he sees."

The constellation are shifting. In this case, the time is now towards the end of July since the constellation is moving.


Spenser likens Elizabeth to Maia, the Goddess of Nursing Mothers.

"Like unto Maia, when as Jove her tooke, In Tempe, lying on the flowry gras, Twixt sleepe and wake, after she weary was, With bathing in the Acidalian brooke."

Maia was one of the Pleiades, whom Zeus (Jove, also called Jupiter in Roman mythology) had an affair with. Maia later gave birth to Hermes, but is also known as the Goddess of Nursing mothers. Elizabeth is going to be a mother, like Maia was. And she is going to be a caring one, Spenser hopes. Spenser is taking a lot of thought into the future.


Spenser compares his soon to be love making to that of Zeus and Alcmene.

"But let the night be calme and quietsome, Without tempestuous storms or sad afray: Lyke as when Jove with fayre Alcmena lay, When he begot the great Tirynthian groome:"

Zeus had another affair with a human, Alcmene. Alcmene then bore Heracles. But Alcmene was already married to Amphitryon,[8] the King of Tiryns. Zeus and Alcmene had a quiet night, forgetting every care in the world. Including each other's spouses. Spenser hopes the night the new couple is about to endure will be calm and quiet.


Cynthia is a female name given to Mount Cynthus. But it was also a name for Selene, the personification of the Moon.

"Who is the same, which at my window peepes? Or whose is that faire face, that shines so bright, Is it not Cinthia, she that never sleepes, But walkes about high heaven al the night? "

The moon is high in the sky, making an appearance. It is spying on the couple's love. The couple's love is being watched by the moon, who is taking the time to do so. Spenser's love is worthy of being watched by the Moon.

Latmian Shepherd[edit]

Endymion was a shepherd on Mount Latmas.

"For thou likewise didst love, though now unthought, And for a fleece of woll, which privily, The Latmian shephard once unto thee brought, His pleasures with thee wrought."

The mythology tells that Selene was in love with the Shepherd. She loved him and his appearance so much, that she asked Zeus that Endymion stay young forever. Zeus granted this, and put Endymion in an eternal sleep. Selene is watching Spenser and Elizabeth with jealousy, because her lover cannot interact with her.


Genius was the God of generation and birth.

"And thou glad Genius, in whose gentle hand, The bridale bowre and geniall bed remaine,"

Spenser is once again asking for a blessing from a god. This time it is on passing birth and passing down his genes.


Hebe is the Goddess of youth and freedom.

"And thou farye Hebe, and thou Hymen free, Grant that is may so be. Til which we cease your further prayse to sing, Ne any woods shall answer, nor your Eccho ring."

Spenser is leaving behind his youth and settling down. One can infer he is envisioning the future in this stanza, and how time will cease for the couple eventually.

Why use the mythology[edit]

The ultimate goal of using the Greek mythology is for emphasis of love. Each character from the mythology is being used to bless the area of the wedding, the ceremony itself, the marriage, Spenser and Elizabeth's life together, and for the hope of an offspring. Comparing his love to that of great myths is all to make his love seem grand.

The mythology also emphasizes how important time is. Spenser is counting down the hours in the day that will lead to the rest of his life. He asks for the gods' help in all the single hours but also for the future.

Christian symbolism[edit]

While the Greek mythology is used to express Spenser's undying love and wishes, the symbols of Christianity are used to express his intimate feelings.

"How the red roses flush up in her cheekes, And the pure snow with goodly vermill stayne, Like crimsin dyde in grayne, That even th'Angels which continually, About the sacred Altare doe remaine, Forget their service and about her fly, Ofte peeping in her face that seemes more fayre,"

Spenser comments how Elizabeth is so beautiful to him that even the Angels would come down to Earth to look at her; and Elizabeth is so beautiful and perfect, she is the virgin to be sacrificed, for all to learn from.

"She commeth in, before th'almighties vew: Of her ye virgins learne obedience, When so ye come into those holy places, To humble your proud faces; Bring her up to th'high altar that she may, The sacred ceremonies there partake, The which do endlesse matrimony make,"

The virginity being taken is sacrificial, but not in the form of Elizabeth dying for a cause. Her virginity is being sacrificed, but for the sake of making a marriage. Elizabeth is walking up the aisle, and the almighties are watching on. She stands as a symbol at the altar, for all to admire and want to be.

The second to last stanza of the poem is Spenser envisioning heaven, as it is the end of time for him and Elizabeth.

"And ye high heavens, the temple of the gods, In which a thousand torches flaming bright... Poure out your blessing on us plentiously, With lasting happinesse... So let us rest, sweet love, in hope of this,"

The description of this idea of Heaven is filled with their desires and will bring lasting happiness. Spenser's Heaven is one where he and Elizabeth can live in peace and be rewarded for their lives.

Animal symbols[edit]

There are multiple animals referenced throughout the poem with different meanings.


The Turtledove is a symbol for love and being faithful.[9]

"Go to the bowre of my beloved love, My truest turtle dove,"

Elizabeth will go to the closed off place of Spenser's love, because she is his faithful love. He trusts her with his secrets and his true self.

Oule, Storke and Raven[edit]

Oule is an old spelling of owl. And in Epithalamion, it is a bad omen.

"Let not the shriech Oule, nor the Storke be heard: Nor the night Raven that still deadly yels,"

Spenser asks that these birds be quiet. If an owl is screeching, it means danger is nearby. Ravens are often construed as omens of bad luck, and Spenser is wishing they do not make a sound. Storks, in Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, are avengers of adultery.[10] So it can be inferred these birds will stop any such crime from happening. Spenser does not want any of these birds to be heard on his wedding night, since he is only asking for love and peace for the rest of his life.

Qurye of Frogs[edit]

Frogs croak at night, and it can be a song that keeps people awake.

"Ne let th'unpleasant Quyre of Frogs still croking Make us to wish theyr choking. Let none of these theyr drery accents sing; Ne let the woods them answer, nor theyr eccho ring."

Spenser wants a peaceful night, and thus a peaceful life with his new bride.


Critical responses[edit]

Many modern scholars argue the effectiveness of Spenser's work.

James Lambert[11] wrote about how the poem connected to the Protestant Reform of the time "Spenser’s Epithalamion reflects this communal joy as it narrates a public celebration of marriage, and does so in song and psalmic refrains. Spenser’s poetic interest in the earthly nature of joy takes Epithalamion beyond an expression of celebratory, communal Thjoy and into a more private, secret joy that remains ineffable. Finally, the poem moves toward affective joy, bestowing a kind of blessedness, or even grace, upon the listener, much like the practice of reciting the Psalms itself was supposed to do. Countering the relative absence of joy as a lived emotion, Spenser’s Epithalamion sets out to combine the discourses of joy—psalmic praises, hymnody, spiritual comfort, heavenly foretaste, festivity, matrimony, and finally, sex—into an all-inclusive articulation."

Melissa Sanchez's[12] essay praised the hidden messages in the poem: "Spenser’s Epithalamion reflects this communal joy as it narrates a public celebration of marriage, and does so in song and psalmic refrains. Spenser’s poetic interest in the earthly nature of joy takes Epithalamion beyond an expression of celebratory, communal joy and into a more private, secret joy that remains ineffable. Finally, the poem moves toward affective joy, bestowing a kind of blessedness, or even grace, upon the listener, much like the practice of reciting the Psalms itself was supposed to do. Countering the relative absence of joy as a lived emotion, Spenser’s Epithalamion sets out to combine the discourses of joy—psalmic praises, hymnody, spiritual comfort, heavenly foretaste, festivity, matrimony, and finally, sex—into an all-inclusive articulation."

James Larsen spoke of the poem in his critical edition:[13] "Epithalamion is a poem which gives ritualized and public affect to the personal on a number of levels, cosmographical, publicly prayerful and euchological."


Spenser uses the structure of his writing to portray the length of time his love will last: forever.

The 24 stanzas are the hours of his wedding day, the 365 lines are the small amount of time he has been courting Elizabeth. The structure maps out one day to a specific time, to an even bigger time frame. The poem goes from microcosm to macrocosm as Spenser describes every hour and then to envisioning the future. It emphasizes the feeling of anxiety Spenser is feeling as he waits for the day to be over to start the rest of his life.

The use of the Greek mythology is to emphasize how strong his love is. Spenser begs the Gods to bless his wedding day, marriage, and fertility. He asks nymphs to make the scenery beautiful for his perfect day. He asks Hymen to bless his ceremony, so it will last forever. He begs for fertility from Bacchus so he can make a life with Elizabeth. He speaks of specific characters, like Orpheus to compare how he will do anything for Elizabeth. Spenser wants the best marriage and life with his bride, because she is the most important thing to him.

The use of Greek mythology is unexpected for the piece, as Spenser was Protestant. Protestants believe the Bible alone has the highest authority. To ask for other God's blessings is completely out of place. And the solae of Protestantism go against how Spenser displays her. To glorify her or put on the altar as a mediator between God and humanity is against the Protestant beliefs Spenser has dedicated his life to.

The use of animals as symbols can be inferred as Spenser wishing the night of the ceremony and the future to being pleasant and uninterrupted. He does not want the raven to bring danger and he does not want the frogs to croak and disturb the night. Spenser is wishing for a peaceful time with his bride.

The poem uses many symbols to display the intense love Spenser has for Elizabeth, and his deepest wishes. Epithalamion is the ultimate ode to a bride. Elizabeth is Spenser's great love story.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Larsen, Kenneth J. (1997). Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion: A Critical Edition. Tempe, AZ: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies. p. 1. ISBN 0-86698-186-1.
  2. ^ Hume, Anthea (December 2008). Edmund Spenser Protestant Poet. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521091602.
  3. ^ "Elizabethan Age". Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  4. ^ Spenser, Edmund. "Epithalamion". Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 1 May 2018.
  5. ^ The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Epithalamion: Poem by Spense". ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  6. ^ Hale, John; Lane, Stefan. "The Mystery of the Missing Line: Spenser's Epithalamion stanza 15". Deep South. Deep South, University of Otago. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  7. ^ Grimal, Pierre (1951). Concise Dictionary of Classical Mythology. France, Paris: Presses Univerataires de France, Paris. p. 208. ISBN 0-631-16696-3.
  8. ^ Pinsent, John (1982). Greek Mythology (3 ed.). Peter Bedrick. pp. 85–87. ISBN 0-911745-08-4.
  9. ^ "The Turtle-Dove". Bible Study Tools. Salem Media Group. Retrieved 30 April 2018.
  10. ^ The Norton Anthology:English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/ Early Seventeenth Century. United States of America: W.W Norton & Company, Inc. 2012. pp. 990–997. ISBN 978-0-393-91250-0.
  11. ^ Lambert, James (2014). ""Spenser's Epithalamion and the Protestant Expression of Joy."". SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900. 54 (1): 81–103. doi:10.1353/sel.2014.0004.
  12. ^ Sanchez, Melissa (2012). "'Modesty or Comeliness': The Predicament of Reform Theology in Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion". Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature , (65:1), 2012, 5-24. . (0034–4346): 5–24.
  13. ^ Larsen, Kenneth (1997). Edmund Spener's Amoretti and Epithalamion A Critical Edition. United States of America: Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University. p. 2. ISBN 0-86698-186-1.