While reading Spenser’s “Epithalamion,” I was troubled by it’s style for several reasons. First, Spenser’s use of Middle English was one of the first things that made the poem challenging for me. Although it was not too difficult to figure out the meaning of most words due to their shared phonological sounds with Modern English, the spelling of words, such as “didst” and “sunshyny,” were distracting to me. The unfamiliarity with these spellings sometimes caused me to pause and reread the lines again. As I continued doing this, I noticed that it broke the flow and did not ease the difficulty of the poem. Maybe one way to combat this problem is to focus more on the overall purpose of each stanza, rather than the minute details in each line. The second thing that was bothersome to me while reading was his incorporation of references from Greek mythology and English folklore. At the time of when this poem was written in the 16th Century, the intended audience mostly likely had a better understanding of these allusions than audiences today. The first time I read the poem, I had to constantly refer to the footnotes for clarification and reread those lines with the explanations in mind. However, some of the footnotes still left me with confusion, so I turned to the Internet for further clarifications. Spenser’s style of writing made it difficult to grasp on the meaning of his work. Constantly finding the definitions of words and references mentioned in the poem also made it challenging to appreciate the overall purpose of the poem. However, rereading the poem the second time with the definitions and references in mind helped ease some of the troubled spots and the reoccurring rhyme scheme began to help propel the rhythm forward.
A difficulty that came up with Epithalamion was how Spenser organized such a lengthy poem. It is interesting to question to what extent the ode’s twenty four stanzas, each comprised of eighteen and nineteen lines, plays into the development of the poem’s theme.
One way to understand the structure of the poem is to look at the references to mythical stories. For example, perhaps Spenser is drawing a parallel between the story of Orpheus attempting to bring his wife back from the dead with his attempts to wake the bride.
Another potential way to understand this poem is to follow the passage of time. Spenser gives us various clues that indicate the various times of the day. For example, the line in the second stanza “Early before the worlds light giving lampe” is referring to dawn while the line “But let stil Silence trew night watches keepe” describes the late evening. In addition, the twenty four stanzas represent the twenty four hours in a day. I know that, according to the footnotes, the first sixteen and one quarter hours corresponds to the sixteen and one quarter hours of daylight during the summer solstice, but I fail to appreciate why Spenser decided to so meticulously follow the breakdown of time.
It is uncertain as to what purpose the eighteen and nineteen lines of each stanza serves. I am told in the footnotes that each line would represent a day in the year. In this case, Spenser could have easily had twelve thirty-one line stanzas, which would make more sense for a year.
The rhyme scheme for each stanza is “ababccdcdeefggfhhii” which only serves to confuse the structure even more. The only grounding factor of the rhyme scheme to me is the refrain line “That all the woods may answere and their eccho ring.”
Following the tradition in which it was written, I read all of Spenser’s “Epithalamion” out loud. Following my own tradition, I did so on a balcony in the hot afternoon sun. I thoroughly enjoyed the rhythm and sounds of the poem, and was occasionally captivated by fragments of imagery. But, overall, I would have to say the narrative of the poem escaped me.
I think several factors contributed to the difficulty in which I had following the poem.
1) Large variety of rhyme schemes
Within a single stanza, sometimes envelope (abba) rhyme was used; frequently, couplets would appear and break up groupings of 3, 4, 5, or even 6 lines. Within groupings of 4 lines, sometimes the rhyme scheme was abab, sometimes it was abcb, and sometimes it was aaba.
Knowing that this poem was meant to be recited at weddings, and thus, perhaps memorized, it confuses me as to why a poem would have such an arbitrarily complex pattern of rhyme schemes.
In the margins, it was noted that the poem is organized by “two symmetrical ten-stanza sections, each divided into units of three-four-three. The poem’s structure reinforces the theme of time, with exactly 365 long lines, matching the number of days in the year, and twenty-four stanzas, matching the number of hours in one day.”
Because of the difficulty of comprehending the poem, however, I failed to notice or appreciate any of these large, structural details.
The only feature I did notice was the refrain of the “sing/ring” couplet. After a while, this refrain felt like a comforting sight, like a regularly appearing set of lampposts on an otherwise dark and empty street.
Spencer wrote “Epithalamion” with a plethora of allusions to Greek mythology. Taking into consideration that much of the difficulty in understanding the poet is the language, the allusions that Spencer uses do not help me in the slightest. I understand that Spencer, according to the footnote, invokes a “genre practiced by Latin poets” – meaning that it is older in practice. I also understand that this is a love poem, recited at a wedding which aids me in giving context to the allusions. I know that most of the allusions will probably be related to love, the lover, and even the occasion. I also understand that we can see allusions as metaphors or similes. Poets use allusions to convey a certain message by establishing a certain tone or referencing a very specific situation.
To be more specific, the very first allusion that I see in the poem is the allusion to Orpheus. The speaker say “Ne let the same of any be envied / so Orpheus did for his own bride” (16). One way to tackle these two lines is to deconstruct the old English and try to translate it into simpler terms. The footnote says that Orpheus failed to free his wife from the underworld. He also had something to do with music. Knowing that the speaker also invokes the woods in line 19 a will as music in line 18, I think Spencer used the allusion to compare himself to the mystical elements to Orpheus. However, I also think he may be saying that unlike Orpheus he will not fail his bride.
There are allusions to the muses, to cosmological elements such as Venus and Juno. I believe they are also Greek gods. As a whole, knowing the context of the allusion as well as researching more about it helps with understanding the allusion.
In this week’s reading, I found that the diction in Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love” was difficult to understand. Some of the words that he used were words that I have never even heard of. The first instance that demonstrates this is at the end of line eight (second stanza) with the use of the word “madrigals.” From the context, it seems as though a madrigal is a type of song, and I verified this when I looked it up. In line eleven, “kirtle” is used, and I wasn’t able to tell what it meant from the context. I had to look it up, and I learned that it is a “garment worn by men and women in the Middle Ages” (Wikipedia). The last word that I was confused about is “swains” in line twenty-one in the final stanza. Truthfully, when I read “The shepherd’s swains…,” I thought that “swains” were a type of animal, but the rest of the line finishes with, “…shall dance and sing.” I couldn’t exactly pinpoint what this meant but I learned that it means a servant, or a young lover or suitor.
I think the best way to approach this passage is to focus on the passage as a whole and not focus on the tiny details (the specific words that are difficult to understand). It is still possible to get a general sense of what is going on in the poem despite not knowing what certain words mean.
From the very beginning, the language used in “Epithalamion” was different from the every day language we use. Many of the words used in this piece were unfamiliar to me including the various references to Greek mythology. In many instances, words were spelled more phonetically rather than correctly. For example, “rhymes” was written as “rymes” and “crystal” as “christall.” Although the overall poem has a consistent form and rhyme scheme, the odd spellings and sentence structure causes me as the reader to pause and decipher what is being said. Reading through the poem, it makes me wonder whether the author intentionally spelled things in certain ways in order to ensure the poem would be read in particular ways to make it work. A possible way to make the flow of the poem go more smoothly for me would be to go through the poem and look up the definitions for words I’m unfamiliar with and change spellings of other words around. However, even after doing so, I do not think I would be able to fully understand what is going on in each line. Lines such as “pay to her usury of long delight: and whylest she doth her dight” seems very foreign to me. Even though I grasp what Edmund Spenser is describing in this piece, which is that of a wedding told from the dawn into the night of the wedding day, the descriptions in between does not make much sense. But, I did notice that the refrain after each stanza had slight variations each time, if not exactly the same. This gives this very long poem a sense of unity and brings the entire poem together.