Marriage and sacrifice
The poetics of the Epithalamia
in Spenser and Donne
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In his Epithalamion Spenser twice invokes figures from classical antiquity, Maia and Alcmene, who bore children for Jove. Neither of these two women was a willing lover: one was taken while asleep in a cave, the other was tricked into thinking Jove was her own husband. Invoking two figures whose sexual consummation with Jove was unwilled, Spenser makes matters even more complicated by suggesting that Jove has already lain with his bride, Elizabeth. This essay places Spenser’s Epithalamion in the context of these ancient myths and of the classical tradition of the marriage hymn, and argues that the focus of Spenser’s poem is procreation rather than pleasure. This shift in emphasis is the central legacy of Spenser’s poem for Donne, whose ‘Epithalamion Made at Lincoln’s Inn’ dispenses with any pretence of the bride’s pleasure. While Spenser’s mythological allusions only hint at the bride’s involuntary role as sacrifice, the telos of the marriage ritual, Donne’s parodic ‘Epithalamion Made at Lincoln’s Inn’ brings the barely concealed sexual violence graphically into focus.

Spenser and Donne

Thinking poets

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