Notes on Epithalamion

by Chanchal Chauhan


Important stanzas:

  1.           Now lay those sorrowfull complaints aside


       The woods shall to me answer and my Echo ring. 

                                                                    (Stanza 1, lines 11-18)  


EXP:  In his masterpiece Epithalamion, " song made in lieu of many ornaments" for his bride Elizabeth Boyle, Spenser invokes, in classical epic tradition, the Muses to come to his aid and to sing his wedding song.  The speaker requests the Muses to give up the sorrowful tunes that sometimes they play on their stringed instruments and come in a happy mood with crowned heads decorated with garlands and help the creative artist to sing the praises of his lady love. The praises should fill the void of the forests and everybody should hear their echo.  He wishes that his song should be unique and matchless. Just as Orpheus, the marvelous lyre-player of the Greek mythology sang his melodious song to bring his beloved Eurydice back from Hades, Spenser too wishes to sing his song.  But he would not sing his song to please anybody else (as Orpheus sang his song to Persephone, the wife of Pluto who was the king of Hades), he would address his song to himself so that he may hear it back from the forests and the echo of his song may return to his ear.  Spenser, a poet of the English Renaissance spirit is guided by the new sensibility of human dignity and emerging sense of liberty. Although he makes use of classical pattern by beginning his poem with an Invocation and taking recourse to simile from ancient mythology, yet he underlines his difference by saying that he would sing his song to himself.  Orpheus is guided by a noble sentiment that is his love for Euridice, the speaker of the lines in question is also guided by the same divine sentiment that is his love for Elizabeth Boyle.  That is why the simile is appropriate. 


2,         Ye Nymphes of Mulla which with carefull heed,  


            No blemish she may spie.                                                   

                                                                        (Stanza 4, Lines 56-66)


EXP:   In his nuptial song the speaker addresses the nymphs of Mulla or Awbeg, the river that flows across the speaker's estate. He also addresses the nymphs of Kilcolman Lake who look after silver trout and pikes there. He invites them to bride's chamber; but before they attend to the bride, he wishes that they should clean their own hair and bind them properly. They should also wash their faces clean with water before they approach his bride so that his beloved may not see any blemish on their faces.      

            In this stanza, Spenser mixes mythology with realism. In nymphs we can recognise fishermen's daughters and young peasant girls who would surely attend the speaker's wedding.  He wishes that those country girls should look clean on that occasion.           


3                And Ye three handmayds of the Cyprian Queene


The whiles the woods shal answer and your echo ring.          

                                                    (Stanza 6, Lines 103-109)       


EXP:    In these lines the speaker addresses the Graces that are supposed to be the handmaids of Venus, the goddess of beauty.  He invites them to come to the assistance of his beautiful bride and deck her, as they are expert because they do the make up of Venus.  The three Graces are Euphorsyne, Agalia and Thalia. Cyprian Queen is Venus, the goddess of beauty who was formerly worshipped in Cyprus.   Here the speaker uses mythological figures for the real maids who are to attend his beloved bride, Elizabeth Boyle.  The maids are seen as handmaids and his bride as their queen, Venus, a matchless beauty.


 4.                  O fayrest Phoebus, father of the Muse       


           That all the woods shal answer and they echo ring.         

                                                             (Stanza 7, Lines 121-127)                


EXP:      In these lines the speaker addresses Apollo as the father of the Muse of poetry and as his sincere servant asks for a favour. He wishes to be totally devoted to the sacred act of wedding on that day and forget about everything. He wishes to be the sole in-charge of that one day and for this freedom he is prepared to surrender rest of his days to the supreme control of Apollo.  The speaker says that if his prayer is accepted, he will sing his sovereign praises aloud which all the woods shall answer and their echo will reverberate in the atmosphere. 

      According to Hesiod, the Muses are daughters of Zeus (Jove) and Memory. Here Spenser does not follow Hesiod.  Greek Poet Enmelos makes Apollo the father and not Jove. Thus Spenser also takes liberty and makes the sun god the father of the Muse of poetry.     


5          Her snowie neck lyke to a marble tower     


To honours seat and chastities sweet bowere.                  

                                                        (Stanza 10, Lines 177-180)        


EXP:  In this stanza the speaker describes the bridal procession passing through the main street, between two rows of tradesmen's daughters on the steps of their shops. The onlookers are gazing on the bride in silent admiration.  While asking the tradesmen's daughters whether they had seen any other beautiful damsel like his ladylove, the speaker describes the bodily beauty of the bride in the same manner as Sanskrit poets of Shringar Rasa (such as Kalidasa) did in their poems. It is a sensual and voluptuous description of various parts of bride's body such as eyes, forehead, cheeks, lips, breasts and nipples. He uses appropriate beautiful similes in this description. In the lines in question the speaker compares the snowy neck of his bride to a marble tower and her whole body to a fair palace in which all other parts are like beautiful and grand stairs that lead to the seat of honour and chastity that is head.

            The poet uses the Platonic conception of perfect beauty which, he says, leads the mind, "with many a stately stair", to the seat of perfect divine virtue.  Baldassare Castiglione also underlined this conception of beauty in his treatise, The Courtier, Book IV. The influence of Baldassare Castiglione on Sydney and Spenser was well recognised even by writers of History of English Literature such as Legouis and Cazamian.


  1.               But if ye saw that which no eyes can see                          

Medusaes mazful hed                                                                                                                                     (Stanza 11, Lines 185-190)


EXP:   In this stanza the speaker extols the virtues of his ladylove in a chivalric manner before the daughters of tradesmen who watch the bridal procession from the steps of their shops.

            The speaker tells the onlookers that they could see only the outward beauty of the bride. If they could see the inner beauty of her lively spirit that is embellished with divine gifts, they would have been 'astonished' to see that beauty as any body who stared at the head of the mythological Medusa was 'astonished', or converted into a stone. Although the comparison is not appropriate (Medusa being an image of ugliness), yet it conveys the sense that the inward beauty of the bride is of highest degree that can make the onlookers dumbfounded.  Spenser uses this simile to play on the word, 'astonished'.  According to the classical mythology Medusa was one of the Gorgons, the three monstrous sisters who lived in the Far East near the infernal region.  When the sea-god Neptune defiled the temple of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and chastity transformed the hair of Medusa into snakes and gave her power to turn anyone who gazed at her into a stone ('astonished'). Petrarch makes Medusa a defence of Chastity against love; Spenser makes her a defence of virtuous love against vice.

            In this stanza also we see Spenser's Platonism.  Like Castiglione he also underlines the Platonic conception that external beauty is an index of internal or spiritual beauty.  After describing the beauty of the body of his beloved he describes the beauty of the soul in Platonic terms.                                     

 7.                     There dwels sweet loue and constant chastity          


                        Thereto approach to tempt her mind to ill.                                                                                              (Stanza 11, Lines 191-197)   


EXP:   In these lines the speaker showers praise on his bride's inward beauty which no one but he can perceive.  He tells the daughters of the tradesmen that his bride's internal beauty is a repository of spotless faith, pleasing womanhood, great concern for honour and mild modesty.  There Virtue reigns as the supreme queen in royal throne and proclaims laws of her own free will.  No evil thought can ever enter her mind to pollute her to evil designs.  Virtue can suppress all evil thoughts and base affections that may approach her to tempt her mind to do something unbecoming of her beauty.

This exaggerated exaltation of beauty is typical of Renaissance scholars. This view was prevalent among almost all the poets including Shakespeare and John Donne who wrote love poems.  

8.                         How the red roses flush up in her cheekes          


                         The more they on it stare                                                                                                                         (Stanza 13, Lines 226-233)  

EXP:   In these lines the speaker gives a beautiful description of the maidenly blushes of his bride at the church when the priest addresses her and blesses her with happy hands of her companion on their wedding day.  While she blushes with emotion, her snow white cheeks flush into rosy hue, marking her spotlessly white cheeks stained with vermilion and her beauty makes even the angels guarding the sacred altar forget their holy office and stare on her face with amazement which grows more and more beautiful at every stage. After Spenser Alexander Pope also gives a similar description of beauty in his poem, Rape of the Lock: "The fair each moment rises in her charms, /Repairs her smiles, awakens every grace. /And calls forth all the wonders of her face, / Sees by degrees a purer blush arise,"(Canto I, Lines 140-43). Spenser is rightly called a poets' poet. We hardly find any parallel to Spenser's passage describing the blushes on the maidenly cheeks anywhere in the whole gamut of English poetry before him.   


9.                     Pour out the wine without restraint or stay             


                For they can do it best.                 (Stanza 14, Lines 250-258)


EXP:  In these lines the speaker gives the description of the wedding feast.  In the ecstatic and jolly mood the bridegroom orders the attendants to pour out wine in the glasses for guests without any restraint or stay.  It should be non-stop activity till the stomachs of the feasting guests are full of wine. Just as in ancient Rome the newly wed bride anointed the pillars of bridegroom's house, so the bridegroom wants the wine should be sprinkled on the posts there so that they may also appear to have sweat and got drunk. He requests Bacchus, the god of wine, to crown himself with a coronal and he also requests Hymen, the god of marriage, to put on a wreath of vine.  He asks the Graces to dance for the rest of the time for they alone can perform dance in the finest manner.

            This is a brilliant passage bringing out the Bacchus revelry at the wedding feast. It also reveals to us that the speaker can use pagan rituals to make his wedding a memorable occasion.  All is fair in love.


10.                   This day the sunne is in his cheifest hight   


                        When once the Crab behind his back he sees.          

                                                                (Stanza 15, Lines 265-269) 

 EXP:   In these lines Spenser gives an exact account of his wedding day, i.e.11th of June 1594, a day

that is sacred and holy.  It was holy because it was his wedding day, and it is sacred because it was St. Barnabas Day. The speaker describes the position of the sun on that day.  The sun on that day usually is in his "meridian tower" with Barnaby the bright from where it declines gradually and then loses its heat and brightness till it moves into the sign of Cancer on the 21st of June.

            The passage also shows the thirst for scientific knowledge that was so characteristic of Renaissance intelligentsia. Spenser exhibits almost correct understanding of Astronomy that was part of contemporary knowledge.         


 11.                    Ah when will this long weary day haue end


Thy tyred steedes long since have need of rest.              

                                                    (Stanza 16, Lines 278-284)   

Exp:    In these lines the speaker expresses his desire to be with his bride as soon as the day is over.  He feels that the day has been very long while he waits for that sweet moment to be in bed with his beloved. The waiting is very painful.  He thinks that the hours are moving at a snail's pace. Hence he chides the sun for being slow.  He addresses the sun and tells it that it should plunge hastily into the western waves. The sun's horses are now very tired and need immediate rest after the tiresome journey of the longest day of the year.

            The impatience of the bridegroom to embrace his lady love in bed makes him feel that the wheel of hours move slowly.  He prays to the sun to speed up its movement towards the west where it sets and rests so that he may celebrate the honeymoon for which he waited for long.   


12.              Fayre child of beauty, glorious lamps of love,              


That all the woods them answer and their echo ring.        

                                                    (Stanza 16, Lines 288-92)        


EXP:   (Context of these lines is the same as in the above lines. 'He waited for the evening and at  last evening did come')

            The speaker is at last happy that the sun is slowly setting and the evening star, Hesperus or Venus is rising in the east. (But Venus rises in the west, so it is controversial. Spenser may be having the moon in his mind because it is the moon "with golden creast" that leads all the stars in the sky or he may be confused about the rise of Venus}. He says that the evening star is the glorious lamp of love that guides all lovers at night.  The star looks very cheerful to see the happy wedding guests rejoicing on the occasion and singing songs with joy that will woods answer and their echo fills the atmosphere.    


13.                    Behold how goodly my fair loue does lie                  


                        With bathing in the Acidalian brooke.                         

                                                            (Stanza 17, Lines 305-310)      

 EXP   In these lines the speaker describes his bride lying in proud humility in her nuptial bed like Maia who was taken away by Jupiter while she was dozing on the flowery grass in Tempe after getting tired because she had been bathing for long in the nearby Acidalin brook. Maia was one of the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas who was visited by Zeus and became the mother of Hermes. Tempe is the vale of Thessaly, sacred to Apollo.  Acidalin brooke the fountain of the Orchomenos, Boetia, sacred to Venus; Spenser deliberately shifts it to Tempe for its associations. 

            In order to describe the bride's proud humility in her lying in nuptial bed the poet introduces a fine simile.  This passage is noted for its suggestiveness.  Just as Zeus visited Maia in the bower in Tempe, the speaker is also going to visit his beloved (Elizabeth Boyle) in her bridal bower to share the secret joy of love's felicity.                            

 14.             Let the night be calm and quietsome,                


And begot Majesty.                                                   

                                            (Stanza 18, Lines 326-331)                

 EXP:     The speaker wishes that the night for making love in the nuptial bed should be calm and quiet. It should not be disturbed by any storm or tempest. No activity of terror should happen at that night. That night should be like one at which Jupiter shared the bed of Alcimena who became pregnant and then gave birth to Hercules or it should be like one at which Night herself met Jupiter and became the mother of Majesty. (This version is different from Ovid's).

            Alcimena was the wife of Amphitron.  Jupiter visited her in her husband's likeness, miraculously extending the duration of night.  Hercules was born of that union at Tiryns, Hence Tyrinthian groom.

15.             The whiles an hundred little winged loves,                              


Conceal'd through covert night.                               

                                        (Stanza 20, Lines 357-363)             

 Exp:    In these lines Spenser gives us a chaste and charming vision of nuptial delights enlivned by fancy.  The cupids are painted here as little winged loves.  They signify the playfulness in the act of lovemaking on that night.  The playful acts are compared to little doves and the bride with a storehouse of delightful pleasures is compared to a bird to be caged by the lover. The imagery of preying has suggestiveness of sexual encounter.

            It is remarkable feat of poetic art that Spenser draws a modest veil to describe the voluptuous aspects of the nocturnal pleasures of the nuptial bed without making the description explicit or vulgar.

16.             Who is the same, which at my window peepes?               


That may our comfort breed.                                     

                                        (Stanza 21, lines 372-387)         

Exp:    In these lines the speaker depicts the rise of the moon in mythological and allegorical terms.  He addresses the moon as goddess Cynthia and makes a humble plea to her not to spy on the couple's pleasures. She perhaps feels jealous of this conjugal love.  But the goddess too once had a love affair with Endymion, the Latmian Shepherd. He implores that she should not be guided by envy. She should bless the newly married couple so that the speaker may also see the fruit of his love in the form of a child in his home.

        Cynthia has got two-fold meaning here.  Apart from referring to the goddess moon, it also symbolises the maiden Queen Elizabeth.  Just as the goddess had a love affair with Endymion, Queen Elizabeth too had an affair with Lord Leicester.  Even on his marriage day Spenser has not forgotten to don the cap of laureate to pay homage to the virgin Empress.  In this passage he blends mythology with realism and exhibits the patriotic spirit