Spenser's Feast by Anthony Esolen


Spenser's Feast

Anthony Esolen on the Theological Depth of a Neglected Wedding Hymn

One of the great pleasures I enjoy as a teacher of poetry is witnessing the astonishment of my students when I begin to reveal to them the subtle, manifold, and sometimes maddeningly complex craftsmanship the artists of the ancient world, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance employed. It is a pleasure mingled with a touch of scorn, I confess, because once one has beheld it, most of the art of our time, and especially what is consciously modern, seems pretty jejune—seems like a dry crust of white bread in place of a banquet.

Yet that lends us Christians a tremendous opportunity, both to recover the glories of our heritage and to apply their lessons to the world that God has sent us to evangelize. Let me take for example Edmund Spenser's wedding hymn, the Epithalamion.

The Amoretti

Let me begin by outlining the poetic and theological structure of the work; the two are inseparable. First, it is not just one poem. It is the final poem in a longer work, the Amoretti and Epithalamion. The Amoretti, or "little love gods," are 89 sonnets arranged in a loose biographical succession, as Spenser's narrator moves from courtship to marriage, and also from a sometimes self-centered passion to genuine Christian love, accompanied by his growing appreciation for the lady, whom he first accuses of pride and stubbornness, until he understands that what he really is beholding in her is an admirable constancy.

These 89 poems are set, moreover, in the context of passing time; most important is the passage from Lenten sorrow to Easter joy. Indeed, Spenser has set a block of 47 sonnets exactly in the center of the Amoretti, the first of these alluding to Ash Wednesday ("This holy season fit to fast and pray") and the last one being a hymn to Easter itself, and to Christ, who teaches us what love really is:

Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day
Didst make thy triumph over death and sin,
And having harrowed hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive us to win:
With joyous love, dear Lord, this day begin,
And grant that we for whom thou diddest die,
Being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin,
May live forever in felicity.

The reader may well note the crowding Scriptural allusions in this octet; what he will not note, unless he has made his way through the Amoretti, is that Spenser is bringing to their culmination several important motifs he has woven through the previous sonnets. One of these is his reference to the "dear" blood, picking up, from the sonnet immediately preceding (a sonnet therefore colored by the liturgy of the Easter Vigil and Psalm 43, "As the deer longs for the running streams"), the two meanings of "dear" (beloved, costly) and its pun on "deer" (Christ is the white hart who gives himself in sacrifice). Another is "captivity": the narrator has lately been at pains to show to his betrothed that love is a bond that sets us free, when we "knit the knot that ever shall remain."

I am, understand, only playing the quick-tour guide here; we could really spend an entire day teasing out the interconnections between the Easter sonnet and the rest of the sequence, and still there would remain for us all the others, too. But let me go on.

The Three Centers

Spenser inserts four "Anacreontic" poems, lighthearted poems about Cupid and his antics, between the sonnets of the Amoretti and the Epithalamion;since these poems comprise nine stanzas, and since the Epithalamion comprises 24 long stanzas in the fashion of the Italian canzoni, we are suddenly confronted with a variety of ways to determine the "center" of the work.

We can, for instance, count poems, with the Epithalamion providing 24; that gives us a total of 117, meaning that the central poem in the work will be sonnet 59 of the Amoretti. Is that important? You bet. The sonnet caps a unique pair in the history of sonneteering. The previous sonnet, 58, is written, as its caption declares, "by her that is most assured to herself," and is the lady's own attack on empty pride; for "all flesh is frail, and all her strength unstayed," and so any man must fail who is "trusting on his own assurance." The next, the central poem, is the narrator's reply, beginning thus:

Thrice happy she, that is so well assured
Unto herself and settled so in heart.

Evidently we are encouraged to distinguish between one kind of self-assurance and another: between pride and sureness of heart. The lady, not won over lightly, is all the more surely won when she gives her love, once and forever.

Besides counting poems, however, we can also count stanzas, and that would give us an extra five, for a total of 122, dividing the sequence into equal halves. Is that important? You bet. Sonnet 62, beginning the second half of the sequence (and beginning also a seven-poem block corresponding with Holy Week), signals to us that we have entered a new time, and a new world:

The weary year his race now having run,
The new begins his compassed course anew;
With show of morning mild he hath begun,
Betokening peace and plenty to ensue:
So let us, which this change of weather view,
Change eke our minds and former lives amend;
The old year's sins forepast let us eschew,
And fly the faults with which we did offend.
Then shall the new year's joy forth freshly send
Into the glooming world his gladsome ray:
And all these storms which now his beauty blend
Shall turn to calms and timely clear away
So likewise, love, cheer you your heavy spright,
And change old year's annoy to new delight.

It is New Year's Day, is it? No, not quite. It's quite literally an earth-shattering day, a day that sees the old, ruined world broken into by the ravishing love of God. For the English in Spenser's time marked the New Year by March 25, the feast of the Annunciation. That is when, as John says, the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. That would mean that Easter should fall on March 31, as indeed it did in 1594, when in fact the Amoretti was published.

Finally, one can reckon up the total number of lines in the entire work: 89 sonnets of fourteen lines each, four Anacreontics of 82 lines in all, and the 433 lines of the Epithalamion, giving us 1,761 lines, making line 881 the exact center. That line begins the couplet that ends sonnet 63:

All pains are nothing in respect of this,
All sorrows short that gain eternal bliss.

And that is nothing less than a theodicy founded in love, as time is redeemed by eternity.

The Epithalamion

All this, and I have said nothing yet about the Epithalamion. The poem is a narrative celebration of the wedding day itself, and so we should not be surprised to find it divided into stanzas for the daylight and stanzas for the night. During the day, the narrator, master of ceremonies for the feast, calls upon all of creation, all his townsmen, the maidens and the groomsmen, girls and boys, the Muses, the Graces, even the nymphs of the local fishing holes and forests,

To help to deck her and to help to sing,
That all the woods may answer and your echo ring.
But when the night falls, the bride and groom have other things in mind:
Now it is night, ye damsels may be gone,
And leave my love alone,
And leave likewise your former lay to sing:
The woods no more shall answer, nor your echo ring.

The central stanzas, 12 and 13, are those in which the sacrament of unity is performed. In 12, the narrator cries out with the Psalmist, "Open the temple gates unto my love!" And she approaches the minister, at just the right moment in time, a moment that opens out in love to the everlasting:

Bring her up to the high altar that she may
The sacred ceremonies there partake,
The which do endless matrimony make,
And let the roaring organs loudly play
The praises of the Lord in lively notes,
The whiles with hollow throats
The Choristers the joyous anthem sing,
That all the woods may answer and their echo ring.

And indeed, if one divides the Epithalamion in half by lines, the words at the very heart of the poem, in the center of the center, are these: "endless matrimony."

So she approaches, and then in 13 the sacrament is conferred, and heaven and earth are made one:

Why blush ye, love, to give to me your hand,
The pledge of all our band?
Sing ye sweet angels, Alleluia sing,
That all the woods may answer and your echo ring.

But this union of earth and heaven is not only so during the ceremony in the church. It is so essentially: it is the heart of marriage itself. Therefore, when the poet and his bride have given one another their love in the flesh, they pray to the powers in heaven above:

Pour out your blessings on us plenteously,
And happy influence upon us rain,
That we may raise a large posterity
Which from the earth, which they may long possess
With lasting happiness,
Up to your haughty palaces may mount,
And for the guerdon of their glorious merit
May heavenly tabernacles there inherit,
Of blessed Saints for to increase the count.

Intricate Measures of Time

Can the structure of a work of art be more intricate than this? Oh yes, far more intricate, more than I can tell. The Epithalamion features long lines (five or six feet) and short lines (three or, very rarely, four feet). There are 365 long lines, corresponding to the days in the year, and 68 short lines, corresponding to the number of weeks (52) and months (12) and seasons (4). That is no coincidence. Spenser has those measures of time in mind. He jests that he's chosen the worst day in the year for a wedding: "Barnaby the bright," St. Barnabas's Day, on the summer solstice. Let's drive this day on, he cries:

But for this time it ill ordained was
To choose the longest day in all the year
And shortest night, when longest fitter were:
Yet never day so long, but late would pass.
Ring ye the bells to make it wear away,
And bonfires make all day,
And dance about them, and about them sing,
That all the woods may answer, and your echo ring.

Now, Spenser was married in southern Ireland. If we check contemporary almanacs for that latitude, we find 16 and one-fourth hours of daylight on that day. So then, a quarter of the way into the seventeenth stanza:

Now night is come, now soon her disarray,
And in her bed her lay.

The Envoy

Is that all? Not by a long shot. I have not mentioned the cause of the seasons: the maximum tilt of the ecliptic, the plane of the sun's path around the earth; or, to put it in heliocentric terms, the tilt of the earth on its axis. That tilt, or the maximum departure of the sun from the celestial equator, is roughly 23 and a half degrees. So Spenser does not give us 24 stanzas, not exactly. He gives us 23 long stanzas, and then this fractional stanza, an envoy that ends the Epithalamion and the entire magnificent work:

Song made in lieu of many ornaments
With which my love should duly have been decked,
Which cutting off through hasty accidents
Ye would not stay your due time to expect,
But promised both to recompense:
Be unto her a goodly ornament,
And for short time an endless monument.

"I could not give you all the presents I had in mind," says the poet, "but in the meanwhile I give you this song," which is an "endless monument" both for a short time—the short time of their lives together; and in place of short time—as their lives are oriented towards eternity. That eternity is suggested by the number of lines in this envoy: seven, the number of the Sabbath, the number of the divine feast.

Spenser's work is all this and much more—for I have not remarked upon its psychological subtlety, the depth of its analysis of the relationship between eros and charity, the comical interplay between the masculine and the feminine, the echoing of the Amoretti in the Epithalamion, the relationship between Spenser the poet and his narrative persona, the strange phenomenon of a sonnet repeated verbatim except for a single word, and the sheer verve and beauty of it all. This is but one treasure in the chest in the attic, gathering dust. Turn back, Christians, and clear the dust away! •

Anthony Esolen teaches English at Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and is the author of many books, including Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (St. Benedict Press), Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery). He has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.