A short note [Summary] on Epithalamion by Edmund Spenser.
According to Mutter Epithalamion is one of the greatest formal lyrics in English. Legouis praises it as a great ode without a rival. It exceeds in richness and splendour all compositions of the same kind. It is the most gorgeous jewel in the treasure-house of the Renaissance. J.W. Mackail assigns to it the first place not only among spenser’s lyrics but also among all English odes. It celebrates the marriage of Spenser with Elizabeth Boyle.
The ode adopts the Italian Canzone. It has twenty three stanzas of usually seventeen lines which are of unequal length and intricate rhyme pattern, each stanza ending in a fourteen syllable line which forms a varied refrain. The last seven lines are tornata, an envoi, that expresses the poet’s desire to offer the poem as a gift in lieu of the ornaments that have not reached her because of some accident. It bears the influence of Sappho, Theocritus’s Epithalamium of Helen, Catallus’s The Wedding of Manlius and Vinia and the epithalamia of the French Pleiade, Ronsard and Du Bellay. Its novelty lies in the narrator being the poet who is also the bridegroom.
The poem unfolds a canvas where mythological and Christian elements, literary reminiscence and natural description blend harmoniously to intensify the expression of the poet’s personal emotions. It radiates an aura of a pageant about it. Its chief features are the invocation of the Muse, the procession, feasting, the decoration of the bride, the praise of her beauty, the bride’s arrival at the church, the marriage ceremony, the preparation of the bridal chamber and prayer for their fruitful union.
Spenser’s Platonic conception that the outward beauty is a reflection of the inner virtue and purity, manifests itself in the description of the bride who is adorn’d with beauty’s grace and virtue’s store. The beauty of her body like a palace fair leads the mind with many a stately stair to honour’s seat, to the seat of perfect virtue. Spenser’s celebration of ideal beauty, and the Petrarchan deification of the lady are conventional. Though the poem is personal, it universalies the experience of love. The narration of events covering one day, from morning to midnight imposes on the poem a unity in respect of the subject-matter and of its emotional content. As Mutter observes, the wealth of imagery is allied to the often remarked musical quality of the poem to produce a total effect of strength and controlled luxuriance which earns for it Coleridge’s praise of truly sublime.