History of the Epithalamium
Written by: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition
EPITHALAMIUM (Gr. ?π?, at or upon, and θ?λαμος, a nuptial chamber), originally among the Greeks a song in praise of bride and bridegroom, which was sung by a number of boys and girls at the door of the nuptial chamber. According to the scholiast on Theocritus, one form, the κατακοιμητικ?ν, was employed at night, and another, the διεγερτικ?ν, 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 morality would condemn as obscene. 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 Buchanan, Scaliger, Sannazaro, and a whole host of modern Latin poets, with whom, indeed, the form was at one time in great favour. The names of Ronsard, Malherbe and Scarron are especially associated with the species in French literature, and Marini and Metastasio in Italian. Perhaps no poem of this class has been more universally admired than the Epithalamium of Spenser (1595), though he has found no unworthy rivals in Ben Jonson, Donne and Quarles. At the close of In Memoriam Tennyson has appended a poem, on the nuptials of his sister, which is strictly an epithalamium.