June Weddings, Elizabethan Style

Francois BoucherFrancois Boucher, mid 18th-century 

As June is the month for weddings (Julia and I were married June 8), I will be looking at a wedding poem and a wedding play this week: Edmund Spenser’s gorgeous Epithalamion and Shakespeare’s magical Midsummer Night’s Dream. Writing about his own upcoming wedding, Spenser is so exuberant that he could be a spokesman for Bride Magazine.

Epithlamion is too long to look to look at in detail so I’m just going to hit some of the highlights. (You can read the entire poem here.) The poem may remind you of the joy at weddings you have attended (maybe your own) or add zest to weddings that lie ahead.

The title means “wedding song,” and the poem was written to celebrate Spenser’s own wedding in 1594. To do the event justice, he pulls out a score or so of classical references, starting with the poetic muses. “Helpe me mine owne loves praises to resound,” he asks them and then compares himself to Orpheus, who also sang beautiful music to his wife Eurydice.  This is not just your average, everyday wedding.  It is a Princess Di and Charles wedding, with gods, angels and Cupids all in attendance.

[Note: Spenser invented his own Chaucerian, middle English style to add an old-fashioned and rustic quality to the event. Unfortunately, this makes the poem difficult to read. It’s as if someone today, wanting to speaking of love “in the old high way” (to quote Yeats), chose to employ language that reminded people of Shakespeare.]

Epithalamion covers an entire wedding day, from the poet calling his bride from bed to the two making love after the festivities are over. “Go to the bowre of my beloved love,/My truest turtle dove,” he tells the muses. She will wake into a stunning June 21st morning featuring a full-bird chorus:

Hark how the cheerefull birds do chaunt theyr laies
And carroll of loves praise.
The merry Larke hir mattins sings aloft,
The thrush replyes, the Mavis descant playes,
The Ouzell shrills, the Ruddock warbles soft,
So goodly all agree with sweet consent,
To this dayes merriment.
Ah my deere love why doe ye sleepe thus long,
When meeter were that ye should now awake,
T’awayt the comming of your joyous make,
And hearken to the birds lovelearned song,
The deawy leaves among.

Of course, Spenser holds nothing back when it comes to praising his bride’s beauty. There is no one, he says,

So sweet, so lovely, and so mild as she,
Adornd with beautyes grace and vertues store,
Her goodly eyes lyke Saphyres shining bright,
Her forehead yvory white,
Her cheekes lyke apples which the sun hath rudded,
Her lips lyke cherryes charming men to byte,
Her brest like to a bowle of creame uncrudded,
Her paps lyke lyllies budded,
Her snowie necke lyke to a marble towre,
And all her body like a pallace fayre . . .

He also goes into detail about the anticipated wedding ceremony. The organist is playing, the choir is singing, the excited priest is marrying the couple, and the angels are checking out the action:

Bring her up to th’high altar that she may,
The sacred ceremonies there partake,
The which do endlesse matrimony make,
And let the roring Organs loudly play
The praises of the Lord in lively notes,
The whiles with hollow throates
The Choristers the joyous Antheme sing,
That al the woods may answere and their eccho ring.

Behold whiles she before the altar stands
Hearing the holy priest that to her speakes
And blesseth her with his two happy hands,
How the red roses flush up in her cheekes,
And the pure snow with goodly vermill stay
Like crimsin dyde in grayne,
That even th’Angels which continually,
About the sacred Altare doe remaine,
Forget their service and about her fly,
Ofte peeping in her face that seemes more fayre,
The more they on it stare.

At the party afterwards, meanwhile, there’s plenty of wine:

Poure out the wine without restraint or stay,
Poure not by cups, but by the belly full,
Poure out to all that wull,
And sprinkle all the postes and wals with wine,
That they may sweat, and drunken be withall.
Crowne ye God Bacchus with a coronall . . .

And then to bed, where the speaker imagines himself as Jove coming upon Maia. He also informs his muses that they can leave—he can use his own imagination now—since night will spread its “broad wing over my love and me,/That no man may us see”:

Now bring the Bryde into the brydall boures.
The night is come, now soone her disaray,
And in her bed her lay;
Lay her in lillies and in violets,
And silken courteins over her display,
And odourd sheetes, and Arras coverlets.
Behold how goodly my faire love does ly
In proud humility;
Like unto Maia, when as Jove her tooke,
In Tempe, lying on the flowry gras,
Twixt sleepe and wake, after she weary was,
With bathing in the Acidalian brooke.
Now it is night, ye damsels may be gon,
And leave my love alone . . .

While the muses need to leave, however, it is okay for a hundred little “winged loves”  to look on as we move from Bride Magazine to Cosmopolitan. The Cupids will “fly and flutter around your bed”, filching away “sweet snatches of delight,” playing their sports at will, and turning the occasion into a “paradise of joyes.” Addressing these “sonnes of Venus,” he tells them to make most of an opportunity where “none doth hinder you” for “it will soone be day.”

And since Cinthia/Diana, who is goddess of the moon and of child birth, is peeping through the window, he asks that she insure that his “timely seed” impregnate his wife and that the marriage produce “fruitful progeny.” The poem ends with him asking Heaven for its blessing and informing his bride (as is customary with this poetic genre) that his epithalamion must function in lieu of wedding presents, which haven’t arrived yet.

He mentions one other thing that also shows up in Midsummer Night’s Dream: the night, which is filled with delight, is also a time when evil spirits are on the prowl. Therefore, he asks that he and his bride be protected:

Let no deluding dreames, nor dreadful sights
Make sudden sad affrights;
Ne let housefyres, nor lightnings helpelesse harmes,
Ne let the Pouke, nor other evill sprights,
Ne let mischivous witches with theyr charmes,
Ne let hob Goblins, names whose sence we see not,
Fray us with things that be not.
Let not the shriech Oule, nor the Storke be heard:
Nor the night Raven that still deadly yels,
Nor damned ghosts cald up with mighty spels,
Nor griesly vultures make us once affeard . . .

On an interesting side note, the Irish mansion where this wedding would have taken place was seized unjustly from the Irish and given to Spenser. The Irish rose up in rebellion four years later and burned the house down. Spenser’s infant child may have perished in the flames, and Spenser fled to England. Life after marriage doesn’t always work out as planned.

But the wedding ritual itself is a celebration of love and hope. Poetically, Spenser celebrates it as well as anyone ever has.

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