Definitions

thalamium

Epithalamium

[ep-uh-thuh-ley-mee-uhm]
Epithalamium (from Greek; epi- upon, and thalamium nuptial chamber, sometimes also spelled "epithalamion") specifically refers to a form of poem that is written for the bride. Or, specifically, written for the bride on the way to her marital chamber. The word derives from the Greek epithalamios which means "of a wedding", epi (of) + thalamos (bridal chamber.) This form continued in popularity through the history of the classical world; the Roman poet Catullus wrote a famous epithalamium, which was translated from or at least inspired by a now-lost work of Sappho.

History

It was originally among the Greeks a song in praise of bride and bridegroom, sung by a number of boys and girls at the door of the nuptial chamber. According to the scholiast on Theocritus, one form was employed at night, and another, to arouse the bride and bridegroom on the following morning. In either case, as was natural, the main burden of the song consisted of invocations of blessing and predictions of happiness, interrupted from time to time by the ancient chorus of Hymen hymenaee. Among the Romans a similar custom was in vogue, but the song was sung by girls only, after the marriage guests had gone, and it contained much more of what modern attitudes would identify as obscene.

Development as a Literary Form

In the hands of the poets the epithalamium was developed into a special literary form, and received considerable cultivation. Sappho, Anacreon, Stesichorus and Pindar are all regarded as masters of the species, but the finest example preserved in Greek literature is the 18th Idyll of Theocritus, which celebrates the marriage of Menelaus and Helen. In Latin, the epithalamium, imitated from Fescennine Greek models, was a base form of literature, when Catullus redeemed it and gave it dignity by modelling his Marriage of Thetis and Peleus on a lost ode of Sappho.

In later times Statius, Ausonius, Sidonius Apollinaris and Claudian are the authors of the best-known epithalamia in classical Latin; and they have been imitated by James Buchanan, Julius Caesar Scaliger, Jacopo Sannazaro, and a whole host of modern Latin poets, with whom, indeed, the form was at one time in great favor.

The names of Ronsard, Malherbe and Scarron are especially associated with the genre in French literature, and d'Iarini and Metastasio in Italian. Perhaps no poem of this class has been more universally admired than the pastoral Epithalamium of Edmund Spenser (1595), though he also has important rivals - Ben Jonson, Donne and Francis Quarles. Ben Jonson's friend, Sir John Suckling, is known for his epithalamium "A Ballad Upon a Wedding." In his ballad, Suckling playfully demystifies the usual celebration of marriage by detailing comic rustic parallels and identifying sex as the great leveler.

At the close of In Memoriam A.H.H., Tennyson has appended a poem, on the nuptials of his sister, which is strictly an epithalamium.

E. E. Cummings also returns to the form in his poem Epithalamion, which appears in his 1923 book Tulips and Chimneys. E.E.Cummings' Epithalamion consists of three seven octave parts, and includes numerous references to ancient Greece.

The term is occasionally used beyond poetry, for example to describe Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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