Sunday, July 1, 2012

Spenser - Prothalamion

Epithalamion Stanzas 1 through 12

Epithalamion is an ode written by Edmund Spenser as a gift to his bride, Elizabeth Boyle, on their wedding day. The poem moves through the couples' wedding day, from the groom's impatient hours before dawn to the late hours of night after the husband and wife have consummated their marriage. Spenser is very methodical in his depiction of time as it passes, both in the accurate chronological sense and in the subjective sense of time as felt by those waiting in anticipation or fear.
As with most classically-inspired works, this ode begins with an invocation to the Muses to help the groom; however, in this case they are to help him awaken his bride, not create his poetic work. Then follows a growing procession of figures who attempt to bestir the bride from her bed. Once the sun has risen, the bride finally awakens and begins her procession to the bridal bower. She comes to the "temple" (the sanctuary of the church wherein she is to be formally married to the groom) and is wed, then a celebration ensues. Almost immediately, the groom wants everyone to leave and the day to shorten so that he may enjoy the bliss of his wedding night. Once the night arrives, however, the groom turns his thoughts toward the product of their union, praying to various gods that his new wife's womb might be fertile and give him multiple children.
Stanza 1
Summary
The groom calls upon the muses to inspire him to properly sing the praises of his beloved bride. He claims he will sing to himself, "as Orpheus did for his own bride." As with most of the following stanzas, this stanza ends with the refrain "The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring."
Analysis
In the tradition of classical authors, the poet calls upon the muses to inspire him. Unlike many poets, who called upon a single muse, Spenser here calls upon all the muses, suggesting his subject requires the full range of mythic inspiration. The reference to Orpheus is an allusion to that hero's luring of his bride's spirit from the realm of the dead using his beautiful music; the groom, too, hopes to awaken his bride from her slumber, leading her into the light of their wedding day.
Stanza 2
Summary
Before the break of day, the groom urges the muses to head to his beloved's bower, there to awaken her. Hymen, god of marriage, is already awake, and so too should the bride arise. The groom urges the muses to remind his bride that this is her wedding day, an occasion that will return her great delight for all the "paynes and sorrowes past."
Analysis
Another classical figure, Hymen, is invoked here, and not for the last time. If the god of marriage is ready, and the groom is ready, then he expects his bride to make herself ready as well. The focus is on the sanctity of the wedding day--this occasion itself should urge the bride to come celebrate it as early as possible. Here it is the marriage ceremony, not the bride (or the groom) which determines what is urgent.
Stanza 3
Summary
The groom instructs the muses to summon all the nymphs they can to accompany them to the bridal chamber. On their way, they are to gather all the fragrant flowers they can and decorate the path leading from the "bridal bower," where the marriage ceremony is to take place, to the door of the bride's chambers. If they do so, she will tread nothing but flowers on her procession from her rooms to the site of the wedding. As they adorn her doorway with flowers, their song will awaken the bride
Analysis
This celebration of Christian matrimony here becomes firmly entrenched in the classical mythology of the Greeks with the summoning of the nymphs. No more pagan image can be found than these nature-spirits strewing the ground with various flowers to make a path of beauty from the bride's bedchamber to the bridal bower. Although Spenser will later develop the Protestant marriage ideals, he has chosen to greet the wedding day morning with the spirits of ancient paganism instead.
Stanza 4
Summary
Addressing the various nymphs of other natural locales, the groom asks that they tend to their specialties to make the wedding day perfect. The nymphs who tend the ponds and lakes should make sure the water is clear and unmolested by lively fish, that they may see their own reflections in it and so best prepare themselves to be seen by the bride. The nymphs of the mountains and woods, who keep deer safe from ravening wolves, should exercise their skills in keeping these selfsame wolves away from the bride this wedding day. Both groups are to be present to help decorate the wedding site with their beauty.
Analysis
Here Spenser further develops the nymph-summoning of Stanza 3. That he focuses on the two groups' abilities to prevent disturbances hints that he foresaw a chance of some misfortune attending the wedding. Whether this is conventional "wedding day jitters" or a more politically-motivated concern over the problem of Irish uprisings is uncertain, but the wolves mentioned would come from the forests--the same place Irish resistance groups use to hide their movements and strike at the occupying English with impunity.
Stanza 5
Summary
The groom now addresses his bride directly (even if she is not present) to urge her to awaken. Sunrise is long since gone and Phoebus, the sun-god, is showing "his glorious hed." The birds are already singing, and the groom insists their song is a call to joy directed at the bride.
Analysis
The mythical figures of Rosy Dawn, Tithones, and Phoebus are here invoked to continue the classical motif of the ode. Thus far, it is indistinguishable in content from a pagan wedding-song. That the groom must address his bride directly demonstrates both his impatience and the ineffectiveness of relying on the muses and nymphs to summon forth the bride.
Stanza 6
Summary
The bride has finally awakened, and her eyes likened to the sun wit their "goodly beams/More bright then Hesperus." The groom urges the "daughters of delight" to attend to the bride, but summons too the Hours of Day and Night, the Seasons, and the "three handmayds" of Venus to attend as well. He urges the latter to do for his bride what they do for Venus, sing to her as they help her dress for her wedding.
Analysis
There is a second sunrise here as the "darksome cloud" is removed from the bride's visage and her eyes are allowed to shine in all their glory. The "daughters of delight" are the nymphs, still urged to attend on the bride, but here Spenser introduces the personifications of time in the hours that make up Day, Night, and the seasons. He will return to this time motif later, but it is important to note that here he sees time itself participating as much in the marriage ceremony as do the nymphs and handmaids of Venus.
Stanza 7
Summary
The bride is ready with her attendant virgins, so now it is time for the groomsmen and the groom himself to prepare. The groom implores the sun to shine brightly, but not hotly lest it burn his bride's fair skin. He then prays to Phoebus, who is both sun-god and originator of the arts, to give this one day of the year to him while keeping the rest for himself. He offers to exchange his own poetry as an offering for this great favor.
Analysis
The theme of light as both a sign of joy and an image of creative prowess begins to be developed here, as the groom addresses Phoebus. Spenser refers again to his own poetry as a worthy offering to the god of poetry and the arts, which he believes has earned him the favor of having this one day belong to himself rather than to the sun-god.
Stanza 8
Summary
The mortal wedding guests and entertainment move into action. The minstrels play their music and sing, while women play their timbrels and dance. Young boys run throughout the streets crying the wedding song "Hymen io Hymen, Hymen" for all to hear. Those hearing the cries applaud the boys and join in with the song.
Analysis
Spenser shifts to the real-world participants in the wedding ceremony, the entertainment and possible guests. He describes a typical (if lavish) Elizabethan wedding complete with elements harking back to classical times. The boys' song "Hymen io Hymen, Hymen" can be traced back to Greece, with its delivery by Gaius Valerius Catullus in the first century B.C.
Stanza 9
Summary
The groom beholds his bride approaching and compares her to Phoebe (another name for Artemis, goddess of the moon) clad in white "that seemes a virgin best." He finds her white attire so appropriate that she seems more angel than woman. In modesty, she avoids the gaze of the myriad admirers and blushes at the songs of praise she is receiving.
Analysis
This unusual stanza has a "missing line"-- a break after the ninth line of the stanza (line 156). The structure probably plays into Spenser's greater organization of lines and meter, which echo the hours of the day with great mathematical precision. There is no aesthetic reason within the stanza for the break, as it takes place three lines before the verses describing the bride's own reaction to her admirers.
The comparison to Phoebe, twin sister of Phoebus, is significant since the groom has essentially bargained to take Phoebus' place of prominence this day two stanzas ago. He sees the bride as a perfect, even divine, counterpart to himself this day, as Day and Night are inextricably linked in the passage of time.
Stanza 10
Summary
The groom asks the women who see his bride if they have ever seen anyone so beautiful in their town before. He then launches into a list of all her virtues, starting with her eyes and eventually describing her whole body. The bride's overwhelming beauty causes the maidens to forget their song to stare at her.
Analysis
Spenser engages the blason convention, in which a woman's physical features are picked out and described in metaphorical terms. Unlike his blasons in Amoretti, this listing has no overarching connection among the various metaphors. Her eyes and forehead are described in terms of valuable items (sapphires and ivory), her cheeks and lips compared to fruit (apples and cherries), her breast is compared to a bolw of cream, her nipples to the buds of lilies, her neck to an ivory tower, and her whole body compared to a beautiful palace.
Stanza 11
Summary
The groom moves from the external beauty of the bride to her internal beauty, which he claims to see better than anyone else. He praises her lively spirit, her sweet love, her chastity, her faith, her honor, and her modesty. He insists that could her observers see her inner beauty, they would be far more awestruck by it than they already are by her outward appearance.
Analysis
Although not a blason like the last stanza, this set of verses is nonetheless a catalogue of the bride's inner virtues. Spenser moves for a moment away from the emphasis on outward beauty so prominent in this ode and in pagan marriage ceremonies, turning instead to his other classical influence: Platonism. He describes the ideal woman, unsullied by fleshly weakness or stray thoughts. Could the attendants see her true beauty--her absolute beauty--they would be astonished like those who saw "Medusaes mazeful hed" and were turned to stone.
Stanza 12
Summary
The groom calls for the doors to the temple to be opened that his bride may enter in and approach the altar in reverence. He offers his bride as an example for the observing maidens to follow, for she approaches this holy place with reverence and humility.
Analysis
Spenser shifts the imagery from that of a pagan wedding ceremony, in which the bride would be escorted to the groom's house for the wedding, to a Protestant one taking place in a church (although he describes it with the pre-Christian term "temple"). The bride enters in as a "Saynt" in the sense that she is a good Protestant Christian, and she approaches this holy place with the appropriate humility. No mention of Hymen or Phoebus is made; instead the bride approaches "before th' almighties vew." The minstrels have now become "Choristers" singing "praises of the Lord" to the accompaniment of organs.

Epithalamion Stanzas 13 through 24

Stanza 13
Summary
The bride stands before the altar as the priest offers his blessing upon her and upon the marriage. She blushes, causing the angels to forget their duties and encircle here, while the groom wonders why she should blush to give him her hand in marriage.
Analysis
Now firmly entrenched in the Christian wedding ceremony, the poem dwells upon the bride's reaction to the priest's blessing, and the groom's reaction to his bride's response. Her blush sends him toward another song about her beauty, but he hesitates to commit wholly to that. A shadow of doubt crosses his mind, as he describes her downcast eyes as "sad" and wonders why making a pledge to marry him should make her blush.
Stanza 14
Summary
The Christian part of the wedding ceremony is over, and the groom asks that the bride to be brought home again and the celebration to start. He calls for feasting and drinking, turning his attention from the "almighty" God of the church to the "God Bacchus," Hymen, and the Graces.
Analysis
Spenser slips easily (perhaps even hastily) away from teh Protestant wedding ceremony back to the pagan revelries. Forgotten is the bride's humility at the altar of the Christian God; instead he crowns Bacchus, god of wine and revelry, and Hymen was requesting the Graces to dance. Now he wants to celebrate his "triumph" with wine "poured out without restraint or stay" and libations to the aforementioned gods. He considers this day to be holy for himself, perhaps seeing it as an answer to his previous imprecation to Phoebus that this day belong to him alone.
Stanza 15
Summary
The groom reiterates his affirmation that this day is holy and calls everyone to celebrate in response to the ringing bells. He exults that the sun is so bright and the day so beautiful, then changes his tone to regret as he realize his wedding is taking place on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and so his nighttime nuptial bliss will be delayed all the longer, yet last only briefly.
Analysis
By identifying the exact day of the wedding (the summer solstice, June 20), Spenser allows the reader to fit this poetic description of the ceremony into a real, historical context. As some critics have noted, a timeline of the day superimposed over the verse structure of the entire ode produces an accurate, line-by-line account of the various astronomical events (sunrise, the position of the stars, sunset).
Stanza 16
Summary
The groom continues his frustrated complaint that the day is too long, but grows hopeful as at long last the evening begins its arrival. Seeing the evening start in the East, he addresses is as "Fayre childe of beauty, glorious lampe of loue," urging it to come forward and hasten the time for the newlyweds to consummate their marriage.
Analysis
Again focused on time, the speaker here is able to draw hope from the approach of twilight. He is eager to be alone with his bride, and so invokes the evening star to lead the bride and groom to their bedchamber.
Stanza 17
Summary
The groom urges the singers and dancers to leave the wedding, but take the bride to her bed as they depart. He is eager to be alone with his bride, and compares the sight of her lying in bed to that of Maia, the mountain goddess with whom Zeus conceived Hermes.
Analysis
The comparison to Zeus and Maia is significant in that it foreshadows another desire of the groom, procreation. Besides being eager to make love to his new bride, the speaker is also hoping to conceive a child. According to legend and tradition, a child conceived on the summer solstice would grow into prosperity and wisdom, so the connection to the specific day of the wedding cannot be ignored.
Stanza 18
Night has come at last, and the groom asks Night to cover and protect them. He makes another comparison to mythology, this time Zeus' affair with Alcmene and his affair with Night herself.
Analysis
Here again Spenser uses a classical allusion to Zeus, mentioning not only the woman with whom Zeus had relations, but also their offspring. Alcmene was a daughter of Pleiades and, through Zeus, became the mother of Hercules. The focus has almost shifted away from the bride or the act of consummation to the potential child that may come of this union.
Stanza 19
Summary
The groom prays that no evil spirits or bad thoughts would reach the newlyweds this night. The entire stanza is a list of possible dangers he pleads to leave them alone.
Analysis
At the moment the bride and groom are finally alone, the speaker shifts into an almost hysterical litany of fears and dreads. From false whispers and doubts, he declines into superstitious fear of witches, "hob Goblins," ghosts, and vultures, among others. Although some of these night-terrors have analogs in Greek mythology, many of them come from the folklore of the Irish countryside. Spenser reminds himself and his readers that, as a landed Englishman on Irish soil, there is danger yet present for him, even on his wedding night.
Stanza 20
Summary
The groom bids silence to prevail and sleep to come when it is the proper time. Until then, he encourages the "hundred little winged loues" to fly about the bed. These tiny Cupids are to enjoy themselves as much as possible until daybreak.
Analysis
The poet turns back to enjoying his beloved bride, invoking the "sonnes of Venus" to play throughout the night. While he recognizes that sleep can and must come eventually, he hopes to enjoy these "little loves" with his bride as much as possible.
Stanza 21
Summary
The groom notices Cinthia, the moon, peering through his window and prays to her for a favorable wedding night. He specifically asks that she make his bride's "chaste womb" fertile this night.
Analysis
Spenser continues his prayer for conception, this time addressing Cinthia, the moon. He asks her to remember her own love of the "Latmian shephard" Endymion--a union that eventually produced fifty daughters, the phases of the moon. He specifically calls a successful conception "our comfort," placing his emotional emphasis upon the fruit of the union above the act of union itself. The impatient lover of the earlier stanzas has become the would-be father looking for completion in a future generation.
Stanza 22
Summary
The groom adds more deities to his list of patron. He asks Juno, wife of Zeus and goddess of marriage, to make their union strong and sacred, then turns her attention toward making it fruitful. So, too, he asks Hebe and Hymen to do the same for them.
Analysis
While asking Juno to bless the marriage, the speaker cannot refrain from asking for progeny. So, too, he invokes Hebe (goddess of youth) and Hymen to make their wedding night one of fortunate conception as well as wedded bliss. While he does return to the hope or prayer that the marriage will remain pure, the speaker still places conception as the highest priority of the night.
Stanza 23
Summary
The groom utters and all-encompassing prayer to all the gods in the heavens, that they might bless this marriage. He asks them to give him "large posterity" that he may raise up generations of followers to ascend to the heavens in praise of the gods. He then encourages his bride to rest in hope of their becoming parents.
Analysis
Spenser brings this ode to a major climax, calling upon all the gods in the heavens to bear witness and shower their blessings upon the couple. He states in no uncertain terms that the blessing he would have is progeny--he wishes nothing other than to have a child from this union. In typical pagan bargaining convention, the speaker assures the gods that if they give him children, these future generations will venerate the gods and fill the earth with "Saints."
Stanza 24
Summary
The groom addresses his song with the charge to be a "goodly ornament" for his bride, whom he feels deserves many physical adornments as well. Time was too short to procure these outward decorations for his beloved, so the groom hopes his ode will be an "endlesse moniment" to her.
Analysis
Spenser follows Elizabeth convention in returning to a self-conscious meditation upon his ode itself. He asks that this ode, which he is forced to give her in place of the many ornaments which his bride should have had, will become an altogether greater adornment for her. He paradoxically asks that it be "for short time" and "endless" monument for her, drawing the reader's attention back to the contrast between earthly time, which eventually runs out, and eternity, which lasts forever in a state of perfection.