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What Is an Epithalamium?

By H.S. Anderson
Updated May 23, 2024
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An epithalamium is a poem written for a bride and groom and presented as a gift on their wedding day. Traditionally, the epithalamium is given to them after the ceremony and the reception, before they depart for their marital bedroom. The poem is given as a blessing to promote a long and prosperous marriage, and it focuses on the relationship between the couple. In some cases, the epithalamium might focus on the bride rather than the couple.

Unlike other structured types of poetry such as sonnets, haikus or limericks, epithalamiums are considered free verse poems. These poems are defined by the nature of the subject matter and not by the use of poetic devices such as meters or stanzas. Epithalamiums can be a few lines or several pages long, provided that the focus is upon positive, romantic imagery that promotes a future of wedded bliss for the couple.

The word "epithalamium" comes from the Greek words epi, which means “upon,” and thalamium, or “nuptial chamber.” Combined, the words mean “upon nuptial chamber,” referring to the epithalamium being a blessing bestowed on a husband and wife on their wedding day. In ancient Greece, epithalamiums were sung as songs rather than spoken as poems. Singing occurred twice, once before the couple entered their room and a second time when they exited their room the next day.

Epithalamiums weren’t considered literature until some well-known Greek poets adopted the form. The most celebrated Greek example is a poem written Theocritus in honor of a royal marriage ceremony. Other renowned ancient Greek poets, such as Sappho, also wrote epithalamiums that. The poets Apollinaris, Statius and Claudian also wrote epithalamiums in classical Latin that were the basis for latter imitations.

Over the years, French, Italian and English poets have incorporated epithalamiums into their bodies of poetic works. Lord Tennyson, Edmund Spenser and E.E. Cummings are just some of the highly acclaimed poets who have written epithalamiums in English. The French poets Francois de Malherbe, Pierre de Ronsard and Paul Scarron are well known for penning this type of poetry in their native tongue. Metastasio is recognized as being a master of this poetic form in Italian.

Songs, paintings and plays have also been referred to as epithalamiums because the focus of the subject matter is similar to the focus of the poems. Williams Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream and part of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin are examples of uses in theatre and music. Renaissance paintings depicting nudes were referred to as epithalamia and were often given to couples as blessings on their wedding day.

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