Epithalamion

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An epithalamion is a wedding song or poem. Its Greek name conveys that it was sung on the threshold of the bridal chamber. The genre was widely practiced by the Latin poets, particularly Catullus. Catullus wrote two kinds of epithalamion: one in the elevated ceremonial style, the other in a more private lyrical style; it is the latter that Spencer follows in his Epithalamion. Common elements are: (i) the invocation to the Muses, (ii) the bringing home of the bride, (iii) the singing and the dancing at the wedding party, and (iv) the preparations for the wedding night. The reader should be aware that the poems merit is not in its originality, but in its evocative, many-layered commingling of the conventional elements his own Irish setting and native folklore.

In addition, the Epithalamion is highly structured. First, there is an introductory stanza, then two ten-stanza sections on each side of the two central stanzas about the church ceremony itself. As A.A. Kent Hieatt has pointed in his book Short Time’s Endless Monument (1960), the poem also has a surprising and complex numerical structure that reinforces the motif of the passage of time. For example, the poem has exactly 365 long lines (composed of five or more metrical feet) matching the number of days in the year. There are twenty-four stanzas counting the envoy, matching the hours of one day and night. Of these stanzas, the first sixteen describe the course of the day, in which the woods echo the various sounds; the last eight describe the night, a time of silence in which the woods no longer echo. At the summer solstice (cf. l.266) in the latitude of Ireland, night in fact, falls after 16 hours of daylight.

The point of these elements of high artistry is not, of course, to explain away why the Epithalamion is one of the great poems of the language. The subtle time structure serves to reinforce the idea implicit throughout the poem that this marriage has reference to all marriages; it emphasizes the endless cycle of time, measured by the passing of the hours and the years – as against which marriage, as a christian sacrament, stands firm, “eterne in mutability.”