Epithalamion (Gk meaning ‘at the bridal chamber’) is a song or poem sung outside the bride’s room on her wedding night.
Sappho is believed to have been the first poet to use it as a literary form. Theocritus wrote one; so, among other Latin poets, did Catullus. At the Renaissance, poets revived the form and many created memorable epithalamia: Tasso, Ronsard, and du Bellay, to name three Europeans; and in England Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, Andrew Marvell, Richard Crashaw, and JohnDryden. By general agreement one of the finest of all is Spenser’s.
The traditional conventions of this form required the circumstances of a wedding, the events of the wedding day, and the celebration by the poet of the married couple’s experience.
Spenser may have written Epithalamion in honour of his own wedding (1594). Sir John Suckling (1609-42) wrote an agreeable parody of such songs called A Ballad upon a Wedding. After Dryden, the epithalamion went out of fashion. Much later, at the beginning of the 19th c., Shelley wrote an Epithalamium (the -ium ending is the Latin form) and Tennyson closed In Memoriam with an epithalamion.