Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
About Lesson



Edmund Spenser

Learning Outcomes

Upon the completion of this unit, the learner will be able to:

  1. acquire a general understanding about the genre of the poem
  2. appreciate the poem
  3. get acquainted with various devices used in the poem
  4. locate the poem with the historical background
  5. employ the biographical details on the poem


What does ‘English Renaissance’ mean? It is ‘Rebirth,’ the rebirth of ancient learning, arts, and literature. It is a metaphor used to describe the new way of thinking, inspired by the Greek and Latin classical works, that originated in Italy and France. The literary revival had a great impact on England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Although there were many noble poets in France and Italy, the number of poets in England were countable. Only Geoffrey Chaucer enjoyed a prestigious position in Medieval England, who was competent like the classical masters. The renaissance period in England flourished with many literary works and poems, especially those poems of William Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. In this unit, we will be learning a marriage-song, written by Spenser, which he wrote as a gift for his wife Elizabeth Boyle on their wedding.

Key Themes

Marriage (The marriage between Spenser and Elizabeth Boyle)
Adoration of the Bride ( Praising the physical as well as inner beauty of Elizabeth Boyle)
Mythology ( Various instances from Christian as well as pagan mythology are used)


Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

  • Renaissance poet
  • Introduced Spenserian sonnets, Spenserian odes

Important Works:

  • The Shepherd’s Calendar
  • The Fairie Queene

4.2.1 Summary

It is the wedding day of the poet; the poem be-gins with an invocation of the Muses to inspire him to create a wedding song. The Muses have always inspired him, they have always made him create great pieces of verses, and so he is asking them to help him sing praises about the love of his life, and help him prepare for his wedding. He requests the Muses to wake up his love after gathering lilies, roses and different kinds of flowers to arrange her room and her path before she wakes up. Then the poet invites the nymphs, who are the caretakers of the beauty of the natural world, to help in preparing his bride, and to sing beautiful songs for her.

Epithalamion is a poem of 433 lines. It has 24 stanzas, corresponding to the 24 hours of the day.

The poet then moves on to speak to the bride directly, requesting her to wake from her deep sleep. He tells her that nature is singing, wishing her on her wedding day. The poet summons various supernatural elements in nature to wake her up, and to get her ready for their wedding. He invokes the father of the Muses, Phoebus Apollo, and asks him to grant his blessings to them that particular day, and promises him that in return, he would praise and sing for him loudly.

The bride has finally woken up. The poet requests “the daughters of delight,” the nymphs, the hours of ay and Night, as well as the Sea-sons to attend to the bride. The poet, then, begins to describe the bridal procession, and the beauty of the bride. He says that the procession is a pompous event, with much singing and dancing. The bride appears, with eyes bright like the sun. She is all dressed in white, looking more of an angel than a woman. She, modestly, avoids the gazing eyes of her admirers, and blushes at praising songs.

The poet enquires the women watching them, whether they have ever seen someone more beautiful than her, and moves on to describe her virtues and her beauty. The beauty of the bride makes the maiden forget their song, and they keep staring at her.

From describing the physical beauty of the bride, the poet moves on to describe her inner beauty. He admires the liveliness in her character, her faithfulness in her love, her chastity, her dedication, her honour and her modest nature. He contends, had the people watching them been able to see her inner beauty, they would have become more stunned than on seeing her physical beauty.

The poet requests to open the doors of the temple, so that his bride may enter and approach the altar. He asks the maidens to make her an example of how piously and respectfully a lady should approach a holy place. The bride stands piously before the altar, as the priest offers his blessings. She blushes, making the angels attending on her forget their duties. Seeing her blush, the poet wonders as to why she should blush on offering her hand to him in marriage. The wedding rituals end there, and the poet asks to bring the bride home, so that the celebrations begin again. The poet calls on for feasting, drinking and merry-making. He turns his attention from the Almighty God to God Bacchus, the god of wine and pleasure, Hymen, the god of marriage ceremonies, and the Graces.

The poet invites everyone to celebrate the holy day. He delights in the fact that the sun is shining bright, and the day is very beautiful. He suddenly changes his delightful tone on realising that the wedding has taken place on the summer solstice, and he will have to wait for long for the night to appear for his nuptial bliss. He goes on to complain about the length of the day, but at last consoles himself as evening begins. On noticing that evening time is approaching, he requests it to arrive faster, so that they would consummate their marriage.

The poet pleads with the singers and dancers to leave them alone. He is eager to see his bride in the wedding chamber. Apart from making love with his bride, he is eager to have a child with her. The legend says that a child conceived during the summer solstice will grow in the midst of all riches, and would grow into a wise person.

Night arrives at last, and the poet pleads to Night to cover and protect both of them. He moves on to make comparisons of the bride and himself with Alcmene and Zeus, and with Night and himself. He also prays that no evil thoughts or spirits visit them at their wedding night to destroy their nuptial bliss. He enlists those things that might disturb them at night. He also wishes silence to prevail throughout the night. His desire is that sleep should visit them at the apt time. Till then, he cheers the cupids to fly around them so that they would relish the night, and the tiny cupids would enjoy themselves.

He suddenly notices that Cinthia, the moon goddess, is watching them through the window. He prays to her that they be blessed with all happiness during the night, and that her chaste womb be made fertile that night itself. The poet further adds more gods and goddesses to his list. He asks Juno, the wife of Zeus, who is the goddess of marriage to bless them so that they can form a strong bond, and their marriage be fertile. He also requests Hebe and Hymen for the same. He prays to all the gods and goddesses for the well-being of their married life. He prays that they may have many children together, so that they may have many followers to ascend to Heaven to offer tribute to the gods. He also assures his bride to wait peacefully for their offspring.

In the final stanza, the poet wishes that this song would be a precious ornament for his bride, whom he thinks needs more physical embellishments. He did not have the time to procure all the ornaments for his bride, hence he wishes that the song will serve the purpose.

Literary Devices

Refrain – A short part of a poem that is of-ten repeated throughout the poem. The refrain, “The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring,” offers a useful point of departure for viewing what the poem makes of its world and subjects.

Allusions – An indirect or passing reference. The poem is rich with mythological and Classical allusions. The prayer to Goddess Cinthia at the end of the poem is an example of Classical allusion.

Metaphors – A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied for an object.

The description of the bride’s beauty is done with metaphors. The eyes and forehead of the bride are described as sapphires and ivory, her lips as cherries, and her neck as an ivory tower.


“Epithalamion” is an ode written by Edmund Spenser, celebrating his marriage with Elizabeth Boyle. The meaning of the word ‘epithalamion’ is ‘marriage hymn’ or ‘wedding song’. The poem begins in the Classical tradition with an invocation of the Muses. The bride is asleep at the beginning of the poem. The beginning stanzas anticipate the waking up of the bride in the morning. She is in her dreams. Later on, she wakes up, and gets ready for her wedding. The first half of the poem presents the poet addressing the gods, as well as other supernatural beings, to help his bride to get ready for their wedding.

Later in the poem, he requests the Greek gods and other supernatural beings to lead her to the altar for the wedding ceremonies to take place. Here, Spenser moves on to use Christian allusions, replacing the Greek ones. The Christian wedding ceremony becomes firmly entrenched with the pagan elements when the poet summons the aid of the nymphs. After the wedding ceremony, the gods take her to the house of the groom. A joyous, festive mood prevails throughout the day. The bride wishes for night to come, so that they might be left alone for their wedding night. Finally, night arrives, and the poet prays for the blessings of the gods for the well-being of their marriage.

The major themes in the poem are the marriage between Edmund Spenser and his bride, Elizabeth Boyle, the glorification of the beauty of the bride, and the use of Christian and pagan mythology.

This poem is an ornamental gift from Spenser for his bride, Elizabeth Boyle. It is written in flowery language. The major literary devices used in the poem are allusions and conventional motifs. The poem is rich in symbols and imagery from Christian and Greek mythology, fashioned upon the Renaissance trend. It has 24 stanzas, and each stanza has a refrain.

The setting of the poem has similarities with the Irish countryside, where Spenser’s wed-ding ceremony was conducted. His deep love for Ireland is presented in the poem through the rich portrayal of the natural world surrounding the bride and himself.


  • ‘Epithalamion’ means “wedding hymn”
  • Addresses the poet’s bride, Elizabeth Boyle
  • Describes the happenings on the wedding day
  • The bride is asleep at the beginning of the poem
  • The poet requests the gods to wake her up
  • The gods and supernatural beings lead her to the wedding chamber
  • The wedding ceremony takes place
  • She is led to the groom’s house
  • Wedding celebrations and feasting continue
  • The bride waits eagerly for the wedding night
  • Night arrives
  • The bride prays for the blessings for a happy married life
  • Full of Christian and Greek allusions

Objective questions

  1. To which genre of poetry does “Epithalamion” belong?
  2. How many long lines are there in the poem?
  3. Who is the groom mentioned in the poem?
  4. Who is the bride?
  5. When was the marriage held?
  6. Where does the marriage take place?


  1. A wedding song
  2. 365
  3. Spenser
  4. Elizabeth Boyle
  5. In 1594
  6. At the altar


  1. Write a note on the poem as a wedding song.
  2. What are the qualities that you find in the poem that make it an ode?
  3. Write a paragraph on the symbols used in the poem.
  4. Attempt a discussion on the themes used in the poem.
  5. Write a critical appreciation of the poem.

Suggested Readings

  • Brown, Richard Danson. ‘The New Poet’: Novelty and Tradition in Spenser’s Complaints. Liverpool UP, 1999.
  • Hattaway, Michael. A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture. Blackwell, 2000