Spenser’s poetry owes and at the same time differs from his contemporary tradition of Petrarchan sonnets. Spenser wrote two comparatively longer poems which infact are two major nuptial songs- The Epithalamion and The Prothalamion. Both the poems deals with the theme of celebration of marriage but in a different style and intent.
The title ‘Epithalamion’ is Spenser’s Graeco- Latin form from Latin ‘epithalamium’, itself derived from Greek ‘epithalamos’ which refers to those songs which are sung before the bridal chamber. Unlike Epithalamion, ‘Prothalamion’ is a term invented by Spenser himself for serving the purpose of differentiating it from the earlier written bridal song. Though the name apparently differentiates the two but the meaning remains the same. Prothalamion, unlike Epithalamion lacks the eroticism and is little more than thinly disguised complaint poem
Epithalamion and Prothalamion has very few similarities between them. Some of the devices which are common in both the poems are the use of pastoral setting, use of River Thames; both uses couplet at the end of the first stanza which reworked into refrain at the end of its subsequent stanza. In both the poem pagan Gods are evoked to bless the married couple.
Epithalamion celebrates Spenser’s own marriage to Elizabeth Boyle while Prothalamion is a nuptial song celebrating the respective marriages of Elizabeth and Katherine Somerset (daughters of the Earl of Worcester) to Henry Gilford and William Peter. Epithalamion celebrates the groom’s and bride’s preparations on the day of their marriage. In Prothalamion Spenser wishes Katherine and Elizabeth pleasure in their marriage act and “fruitful issue” from the consummation of their marriage.
In both the nuptial songs Spenser highlights the importance of nymphs in wedding preparations. In Epithalamion the nymphs cover the bride’s path to the bridal bower with flowers. They protect the sanity of the woods and the lakes so that the bride can have a perfect wedding. In Prothalamion the nymphs gather a profusion of flowers in order to braid Katherine and Elizabeth’s bridal crown. Epithalamion highlights the personal nature of a marital union, while Prothalamion highlights chooses to address the social significance of a marriage union among the nobility.