Spenser’s Epithalamion is the culmination of the collection Amoretti and Epithalamanion. The collection is a sequence of 89 sonnets (Amoretti), 6 short poems (Anacreontics) and the Epithalamion, which is a celebration of his courtship and marriage to Elizabeth Boyle.
The ode is constructed with meticulous attention to the courtship of Elizabeth and their wedding day. It is comprised of 365 lines to represent the days of the year, and there are 24 stanzas for each hour of the day. The 365 days represents the year long courtship of his bride to be, Elizabeth Boyle, and the 24 hours represent each hour of their wedding, through which Spenser ruminates on his anticipation, love, lust, and longings for future bliss in marriage.
Paganism and Christianity are in tension throughout the ode. In the lead up to his wedding, Spenser invokes pagan nymphs to bedeck the path to the bridal chamber with flowers. He invokes other pagan figures such as Tithones and Phoebus, making his ode indistinguishable from pagan wedding songs. It is only when the couple reach the bridal chamber that Christian order takes over pagan revelry. Inside the wedding temple, the bride stands “before th’ almighties vew”, and their pagan minstrels transform into “Choristers” singing “praises of the Lord” accompanied by organs. However, this Christian order lasts only as long as the formal wedding ceremony. Once over, Spenser declares a bacchanalian celebration:
“Poure out the wine without restraint or stay,
Poure not by cups, but by the belly full,
Poure out to all that wull,
And sprinkle all the postes and wals with wine,
That they may sweat, and drunken be withal.
Crowne ye God Bacchus with a coronall,
And Hymen also crowne with wreathes of vine,
And let the Graces daunce unto the res;
For they can doo it best”
In the ode, Christianity is confined within the walls of the church, while the world outside still teems with pagan energy. Christianity plays only a formal role in sanctifying Spenser’s marriage to Elizabeth; but its absence in his thoughts for the rest of the ode betray a pagan spirit.
Most of the ode is celebratory of marriage and love. Elizabeth is praised not only for her external beauty but for her inner character:
“But if ye saw that which no eyes can see,
The inward beauty of her lively spright,
Garnisht with heauenly guifts of high degree,
Much more then would ye wonder at that sight,
And stand astonisht lyke to those which red
Medusaes mazeful hed”
For Spenser, it is Elizabeth’s strength of character, her virtue, her ability to keep the base affections at bay that give her the power of a “Queene in royal throne.” He shows that the ode need not be a mere renumeration of a woman’s physical attributes. That said, Spenser’s frenzied, lustful description of Elizibeth’s physical beauty is a highlight of the ode:
“Her goodly eyes like Saphyres shining bright,
Her forehead yuory white
Her cheeks lyke apples which the sun hath rudded,
Her lips lyke cherryes charming men to byte,
Her brest like to a bowle of cream uncrudded,
Her paps lyke lillies budded”
The short lines, and the “udded” rhymes in particular, force a frantic, almost obsessive tone when read aloud, and reveal the lust lurking under the romantic love. When the ode finally reaches night, and Spenser can satisfy that lust, we reach a dark blot on an otherwise joyous ode. As they approach the consummation of their marriage, Spenser not only calls for privacy from all those he invoked throughout the day, but he also calls for protection against evil magic, creatures, and thoughts. Perhaps this is Christian shame about lust and sex creeping back into the ode? Spenser has waited in anticipation since the wedding ceremony for this moment, but when it comes, he thinks only of banishing impure thoughts, spends little time revelling in the act and instead, looks to the future. The ode ends with his invoking the pagan gods once again, to bless his marriage with fertility, promising that his generations will continue to revere those Gods if they satisfy him.
It is the tension between love and sex, Christianity and paganism, that brings me back to this ode. On the one hand, Spenser revels in pagan religion, invoking the gods and declaring Bacchanalian celebrations for his love. He is frank about his love and his lust for Elizabeth, but when we reach the wedding night, backtracks on the sex. He must call for protection against impurity, ensure that his moral integrity is not destroyed by giving in to his sexual appetites. Ultimately, he justifies his lust by looking to the future: the fruits of their marital union become his justification for sexual gratification.
The ode is also a wonderful celebration of life, love, and marriage. Spenser’s adoration of Elizabeth is powerful and deep. Ultimately, this ode is for his bride. The ode ends with a reflection on its suitability as a wedding gift. Spenser acknowledges that it was a:
“Song made in lieu of many ornaments,
With which my love should duly have been bene’dect”
Suggesting that he had hoped to have given her so much more material gifts to celebrate their union than he did. The lavish wedding of the Epithalamanion then, can be seen as Spenser’s fantasy of what his wedding could have been. And yet, though he hopes to recompense for that material lack, he hopes that his ode will:
“Be vnto her a goodly ornament,
And for short time and endless moniment”