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Book of the Week — Prothalamion & Epithalamion: The Wedding Songs of Edmund Spenser

“… And ye high heavens, the temple of the gods,
In which a thousand torches flaming bright
Doe burne, that to us wretched earthly clods,
In dreadful darknesse lend desired light;
And all ye powers which in the same remayne,
More then we men can fayne,
Poure out your blessing on us plentiously,
And happy influence upon us raine,
That we may raise a large posterity,
Which from the earth, which they may long possesse,
With lasting happinesse,
Up to your haughty pallaces may mount,
And for the guerdon of theyr glorious merit
May heavenly tabernacles there inherit,
Of blessed Saints for to increase the count.
So let us rest, sweet love, in hope of this,
And cease till then our tymely joyes to sing,
The woods no more us answer, nor our eccho ring…”
— Edmund Spenser, “Epithalamion”

Prothalamion & Epithalamion : the wedding songs of Edmund Spenser
Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599)
Mission, B.C.: Barbarian Press, 1998
PR2360 P76 A1 1998

Edmund Spenser was an Elizabethan era poet best known for his epic poem, The Faerie Queene. Though he was well-versed in classical literature, striving to emulate ancient Roman poets such as Virgil and Ovid, Spenser’s poetic style was distinctly his. In addition to inventing his own rhyme scheme, the Spenserian stanza, Spenser greatly influenced English poetic literature and was often imitated by many. Milton described him as “our sage and serious poet…” and Dryden acknowledged Spenser as a master of the English language, endowed with greater innate genius and “more knowledge to support it than any other writer of any age or country…” while Alexander Pope compared Spenser to “a mistress, whose faults we see, but love her with them all.” The first three books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene were published in 1590. In between the second set of three books — which was completed in 1596 — Spenser published collections of several shorter poems. 

One of these collections included eighty-eight sonnets under the title, Amoretti and Epithalamion, published by William Ponsoby in 1595. These love poems commemorated Spenser’s courtship to his second, and much younger, bride-to-be, Elizabeth Boyle. An epithalamium finds its origins among the ancient Greeks as a type of poem or song written in praise of the bride and bridegroom. It derives from the Greek epi (upon) and thalamos (nuptial chamber). The form continued in popularity throughout the classical era and found resurgence among writers of the Renaissance. Like many Renaissance men, Edmund Spenser believed that love is an inexhaustible source of beauty and order. 

“Epithalamion” deals with development of a romantic and sexual relationship in a particularly ordered fashion. Analyzing the poem, one will see that Spenser was exceptionally careful with how he dealt with numbers and, more explicitly, the passage of time.  The poem is made up of three hundred and sixty five long lines and exactly twenty four stanzas — sixteen of which describe the daylight hours of his wedding day, and eight hours of the wedding night. The ode begins at midnight with an invocation to the muses to help the groom. Each stanza then moves through the wedding day hour by hour, progressing from the enthusiasm of youth, to the concerns of middle age, and ending with a hopeful eye toward the legacy of future generations. 

The following year, in 1596, Spenser coined the term “prothalamion,” and used it as the title of his poem celebrating the twin engagement of the daughters of the Earl of Worcester, Elizabeth and Katherine Somerset — allegedly in hopes to gain favor in the court. While an epithalamion celebrates a wedding, a prothalamion celebrates an engagement or a betrothal. Though a much shorter poem, “Prothalamion” also includes references to classical mythological. In it, the poet finds a group of nymphs by the Thames River, collecting flowers for the new brides. Two swans then float across the river, alluding to the myth of Leda and the Swan. The pastoral poem uses nature as a model for a successful marriage: harmonious, peaceful, and fruitful. In as much as the poem praises the natural world, it is also deeply rooted in the political alliances that marriage presented during Spenser’s time. “Prothalamion” is often grouped with Spenser’s poem about his own marriage.

From the colophon: Prothalamion & Epithalamion: The Wedding Songs of Edmund Spenser was published by Barbarian Press in an edition of one hundred copies in July, 1998. The text type is 16D Cancelleresca Bastarda, with Bembo & Dutch Initials for display. The calligraphic initials to the poems are by Ted Staunton. The frontispiece, tail-piece & printer’s device were engraved in wood by Simon Brett. The book was designed & hand-set by Crispin Elsted, & printed by Jan Elsted on a Vandercook Universal 1. The binding is by Rasmussen Bindery of North Vancouver, B.C. University of Utah rare book’s copy is number 100.


Congratulations Jonathan and Laura!
~ 09/14/2023 ~

  • Alexander Jolley
    Posted at 16:03h, 11 September Reply

    “A mistress, whose faults we see, but love her with them all.” — Excellent quote. I like all the spelling “errors” within the poem, really makes it feel old. Congrats Jonathan!

  • Luise Robin Poulton
    Posted at 23:03h, 18 September Reply

    This is so nice. Congratulations, Jonathan and Laura!

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