E211 Fall 2010 Students' Blog

Brad Asuncion on Edmund Spenser's "Epithalamion"

Published by admin_main on Wed 29 Sep, 2010

Why is this wedding song set in the woods? How does the forest prove significant with regard to the poet's task and his hopes and duties as a lover? Consider, for example, each stanza's varied final-line references to the echoing of sounds through the forest: why is the echoing important for more than mere physical description?

For us to answer this question, we have to examine what was going on in the real world, or rather, the real world around Spenser at the time of this writing. Spenser's life was revolving around the time when England and Ireland were in constant opposition with one another, which according to the text, involved tensions in colonial domination. Either way, things were constantly in turmoil (pg. 706, description). Now we compare the real world to his writings—they constantly seemed to have nothing of that sort of caliber. Instead of the constant violence, his writings often depict vivid and beautiful images of landscape. They also seem to cover many instances of morality and have high respects for the splendors of everyday life, whether through physical or metaphysical tendencies. It seems that in order to escape the harsh realities of the real world, he wants to counteract those things by writing about times where one does not have to worry about any forms of despair or overbearing realism.

With this said, the woods, therefore, seem to be the perfect setting for a wedding song of this caliber. As a quiet natural setting, it seems to be cut off from the ills of modern society and allows man to completely be in touch with the beauty of nature and the modern world. Here, we are back at mankind's roots, and also during times where humans have nothing to worry about, and live in harmony with one another. They can celebrate in peace and partake in the blessings of life. They live civilized, without a care, and the blessings of life are a striking reminder of the days of polytheism, the days of ancient civilizations celebrating in the shadow of one of their many gods. Spenser, as seen very much so in this particular poem, invested the woods with a very spiritual quality because of this, because throughout the poem there are many different references to the Greek gods (and it suffices to say that since the name Epithalamion is also Greek, this is expected). As we progress further into the poem, we are introduced to a particular god or deity who, in his/her own spiritual sense of their representation, seems to help the wedding day go along, almost like each one described has a particular duty in the song (i.e., Phoebus and Hymen, pg. 910; Bacchus, pg. 913; Cynthia, pg. 915; Juno and Genius, pg. 916). Along with the Greek gods, he also makes explicit biblical references (both on pg. 911) which are allusions to his thoughts and hopes for this day.

A constant pattern in the song is the line at the end of almost every stanza, which generally runs, "the woods shal answer and your Eccho ring." At first, we can relate this to Greek mythology, as Echo was a nymph who was spurned in love and she kept pining away until it was merely her voice that remained. This may be the case, but on a very small scale. But the use of the echo in this case seems to be a transition through the poem—after some variation of the line is said, an event starting the next stanza flows almost directly from it. For example, the beginning of the poem starts with the man waking and thinking of his wedding day. As such, he seems to be calling out appointed place, the woods, that he is ready, and lets his plea resound in the woods. The next paragraph starts with a near direct answering from nature to his song, because then the spiritual dimension dictates that Hymen, the god of marriage, has heard his call and is now awake for him, just as the man's bride-to-be is being awakened with the sun's glow. That one then ends with its version of the echo, and then the next paragraph begins very much in unison with the events of the earlier paragraph. This pattern continues throughout the poem, all the way to the end, acting like a transition from one stanza to the next, before finally becoming its own ending, when the day is over and the echo, which should be the thresh point for future events, no longer needs to be heard because it has fulfilled its purpose (pg. 916: "…The woods no more us answer, nor our Eccho ring).

With what qualities does the poet invest his bride-to-be? We never hear her voice in this poem—how does that affect your view of her?

Lines 167-184 gives us a physical description of his bride. The poet describes her in detail, with descriptions such as her eyes looking like "Saphyres shining bright" (line 171) and "her cheekes lyke apples which the sun hath rudded (line 173) and may even be vaguely taunting onlooking men by describing her lips "lyke cherryes charming men to byte." The very next paragraph, however, also takes time to describe not just how she seems in outward appearance, but also celebrates the intricacies of her inner beauty. He goes on to say that if one actually decides to take a look at her hidden inner qualities, he/she will see a woman of virtue (lines 191-194). Lines 196-199 sum up these qualities in an idea: because of these inner traits, nothing can "tempt her mind to ill."

These traits convey one thing—based on these descriptions, it sounds like the groom has made quite a catch. But the problem here, as asked by the second question, is the fact that the only way we know anything of her in the first place is through the narrator's own words. That puts the description of her inner beauty into question; unless we somehow see for ourselves that she practices these virtues, we can't be sure that this is truly her. Since the poem's tonality paints us a picture of a wedding that goes perfectly in every detail, it seems to just be putting more frosting on the cake by showing us, the readers, that the marriage is to a woman who seems to undeniably be his soul-mate. This claim, therefore, affects our viewpoint drastically, as if we should just take his word as is and ask no questions. She is deemed beautiful inside and out, and nothing more. But for those who curiously note the fact that she does not speak, it just comes to wonder. It is obviously not meant to put the man down, as if he is blinded by love to not notice any negative qualities, but just to judge her for ourselves, and not by one man's words.

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