The poetics of the Epithalamia

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.

in Spenser and Donne

‘In no poetry more than the religious did the English genius in the seventeenth century declare its strong individuality, its power of reacting on the traditions and fashions which, in the Elizabethan age, had flowed in upon it from the Latin countries in Europe,’ announced Herbert Grierson in the introduction of his 1921 Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems. Since Grierson’s volume, scholars have proposed numerous genealogies for seventeenth-century religious verse. Such genealogies are inevitably teleological: the question governing them is how English poets made the leap from the psalm translations and paraphrases of Thomas Wyatt, Anne Locke, and the Sidneys to the original devotional poetry of John Donne and George Herbert. Curiously, Edmund Spenser’s poetry is rarely considered in this context. And yet religion is central to virtually all of Spenser’s poetry, from the ethico-religious programme of the Faerie Queene to the Protestant vision of love in the Amoretti and the Neoplatonic ascent to divine love in the Fowre Hymnes. This chapter reconsiders Spenser, especially the Fowre Hymnes, as part of the history that leads to Donne’s poetry of devotional praise in the Holy Sonnets, raising fundamental questions about our categories of religious verse.

in Spenser and Donne

The works of Eliot, Yeats, and Joyce feature suggestive references to Spenser and Donne which are eclectic and programmatic in equal measure. The essays of Eliot and Yeats evidence a determination to re-evaluate and appropriate early modern authors, amongst them Spenser and Donne. Eliot is partly responsible for the rediscovery of and newly established appreciation for metaphysical poetry, especially Donne, while Yeats and Joyce share an uneasy relationship to Spenser as an Irish colonialist forebear, whom they feel compelled to confront. However, a tension exists between the artistic use made of Spenser and Donne by Eliot, Yeats, and Joyce. The complex intertextual allusions to Spenser and Donne embedded in their works indicate the various ways in which they repurpose them to befit a modernist aesthetic and intermesh them with the symbolic patterns of their texts. Additionally, contradictory accounts of the lines of division between the medieval, the Renaissance and the modern are put forward by Eliot, Yeats, and Joyce that often diverge from the view that Spenser and Donne are proponents of sharply opposed poetic practices. In modernist writing, Spenser and Donne are held to be as much part of a literary continuum as to represent clashing styles and imaginaries.

in Spenser and Donne