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Prothalamion: Edmund Spenser (1596)



Reading the news today is a dreary business. The BBC News homepage has a new tab for a new crisis every other week. War in Ukraine. Coronavirus. Climate Change. Cost of Living. It’s hardly going to give you the buzz you want if you dare read it with your morning coffee. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of these issues as much as to explain the misery and anxiety they induce, at least for me and I think, many people.


Yet, we all must step into the fire that is politics. As a philosopher working on political and social issues, such things are never far from the mind. But sometimes I want to escape into my own world, lost in the private sphere (much disparaged by today’s social critics) with me and mine. To respond to those with a moralistic finger to wag at such comments, it’s not that I want to bury my head in the sand or adopt a NIMBY philosophy of life. I just want some moments where all of that stuff out there can be forgotten, so that I can enjoy what is here.


On the surface, Spenser’s Prothalamion is just another celebration of marriage, an ode to lovers everywhere this time, rather than the more personal bridal ode he wrote to his wife in the Epithalamion. But, framing this story is Spenser, riddled with anxiety at his precarious political position, and hoping to lose himself in the bridal day of two beautiful nymphs. Each stanza of his poem ends with a prayer to the river Thames:


“sweet Themmes run softly, til I end my Song.”


The refrain is a prayer for just one moment of peace and stability. Freedom from the anxieties that the world forever imposes on us. And yet, despite Spenser’s refrain, he knows the world too well to see it fully realised. He knows as well as all of us that political strife is always ready to resurface. When observing that the bridal train has arrived at “mery London”, the emblem of the political in this poem, Spenser's political worries creep in.


“To mery London, my most kindly Nurse,

That to me gaue this Lifes first natiue sourse:

Though from another place I take my name,

An house of auncient fame.

There when they came, whereas those brickly towers,

The which on Themmes brode aged backe doe ryde,

Where now the studious Lawyers haue their bowers,

There whylome wont the Templer Knights to byde,

Till they decayed through pride:

Next whereunto there standes a stately place,

Where oft I gained giftes and goodly grace

Of that great Lord, which therin wont to dwell,

Whose want too well now feeles my friendless case:

But Ah here fits not well

Olde woes but ioyes to tell

Against the Brydale daye, which is not long:

Sweet Themmes runne softely, till I end my Song.


Spenser overcomes his political woes to enjoy this bridal day, which, he admits "is not long". Yet the poem ends not just with a marriage of two couples, but with the marriage of the personal and the political. Spenser’s two knights come from the source of all Spenser’s political strife: the high Towers of London.


Ultimately, Spenser’s poem accepts the inescapability of political strife. At the same time, he asks us to enjoy those moments, no matter how short they be, when we can escape it. For Spenser, we escape by reaching the heights of human emotion; in displays of romantic love, and through observing the beauty of nature. All we can do is hope that the violent streams of nature and politics run softly long enough for us to enjoy them. And hope too that these brief respites give us the energy to deal with the world outside when we are swept up in it again. At the minute, I enjoy those moments every morning while I read Spenser with my coffee, instead of the news.

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