For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Friday, 24 May 2013

Hymen io Hymen

I have noted that there are very few poems about marriage, and even more worth noting, not so many about weddings either. This is a little strange, when one considers the endless wash of poems, good, bad and indifferent, about love.

One towering nuptial poem, a piece of lyrical mastery, is Edmund Spenser's Epithalamion. It is typically Spenserian in its running together of pagan and Christian imagery, but it is obvious that the paganism is mythological whilst the Christianity supplies the moral fibre and feel of the poem (see the description of the moral grace of the bride in the tenth stanza, for example). I think that this is Spenser's lyrical gift at its most free and joyous, and yet concentrated. And how about this for a spectacular juxtaposition, from the chaste and holy nuptials at the altar to the feast with Bacchus and drunken walls sweating wine:

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 stayne
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 seems more fayre,
The more they on it stare.
But her sad eyes, still fastened on the ground,
Are governed with goodly modesty,
That suffers not one looke to glaunce awry,
Which may let in a little thought unsownd.
Why blush ye, love, to give to me your hand,
The pledge of all our band!
Sing, ye sweet Angels, Alleluya sing,
That all the woods may answere, and your eccho ring.

Now al is done: bring home the bride againe;
Bring home the triumph of our victory:
Bring home with you the glory of her gaine;
With joyance bring her and with jollity.
Never had man more joyfull day then this,
Whom heaven would heape with blis,
Make feast therefore now all this live-long day;
This day for ever to me holy is.
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 Hymen also crowne with wreathes of vine;
And let the Graces daunce unto the rest,
For they can doo it best:
The whiles the maydens doe theyr carroll sing,
To which the woods shall answer, and theyr eccho ring.

Being something of a favourite of mine, I was very excited to find this fascinating piece lately:

about the structure of the poem as a whole. I am very keen to get hold of the book with the essay Short Time's Endless Monument by the Professor Hieatt mentioned in the article, who seems to have been one of the first moderns to catch on to the temporal and ritual symbolism of the poem (it has 24 stanzas for the 24 hours, 365 long lines, and the altar is the centrepoint of the 12th and 13th stanzas and about which the poem is structured symetrically). And it makes a deal of sense that the most Platonist of the Elizabethan poets would have symbolic number and time deep in the very fabric of his poetry. One might see the pursuit of this kind of thing by the poet as a game, but it isn't really if the numerology enters into the meaning itself and augments and deepens it. Spenser's numerology isn't (according to Professor Hieatt) merely ingenious or cryptic, but the result of "a pursuit of an integral meaning, integrally expressed, below the surface of discourse".

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