The Classroom Reception of Spenser’s Epithalamion

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* Article first published in FORTELL September 2011 issue.

Teaching texts as remote in time and place as Spenser’s Epithalamion is a challenge indeed. The ears of city-bred adolescents, so accustomed to the unabashed big bang of our pronouncements in Backstreet Boys, Venga Boys and Savage Garden etc. just do not respond to the snow-soft mercy-petitions in Platonic love poems addressed to “impossible she’s”. And the small towners: the rural and the semi-urban first generation migrants, sitting quietly as “backbenchers” in the class, find it funnier still because fresh in their mind are the reverberations of a more vibrant, terse and dialogic Desi or Margi (popular and classical) tradition of native love poetry embedded in Mangalacharsi, Barahamasasii, Bhramar Geethasiii and other Radha-Krishna duos like these.

Any Indian child who has had the chance to spend even a few hours with grandparents, distant aunts and other folk-narrators readily available at community meets is at least vaguely exposed to Parkeeya Nayikaiv or Nakh-Shikh Varnan Paramparav of Indian classics. And my humble submission is that one of the ways of arousing interest in Spenser and his kind of apparently artificial and urbane utterances of love is to place them against the more sophisticated and vibrantly passionate utterances of love in the popular songs or couplets of Jaidev, Vidyapati, Soordasvi, and the Reetikal poetsvii. Thus, studying Epithalamion, as the mangalachar of a typical marriage song of the Nachariviii tradition could be both interesting and rewarding from the post-colonial perspective of highlighting the subtext of differences.

Even in the lesser poetry of Reetikal, women do radiate an individual stamp. Not only the physical features in Nakh-Shikh Varnanan (tip to toe depiction) but also the quality of wit has individual variations. Seldom in Reetikal poetry are women depicted as tongue-tied Barbie-dolls as in pre-modern English texts where beaming eyes, golden tresses, snowy bosom and blushing cheeks of the lady seem interchangeable from a Beatrice to a Laura, from a Stella to an Elizabeth Boyle. To begin with, one introductory example from oral tradition would suffice. Shekh was the professional dyer whom Alam sent his turban to dye. In the corner of the turban was a knot in which lay an incomplete couplet of his that read “Kanak Chari Si Kamini / Kahe Ko Kati o Cheen” (The woman is like a stick of gold/ why is her waist so slender, we wonder). Shekh read the line and completed the couplet thus: “Kati Ko Kanchan Kati Vidhi Kuchan Madhya Dhar Deeni” (God chipped off gold from the waist to put the extra ounce on the breast). Alam read the couplet, paid Shekh one buck for dying the turban and a thousand bucks for completing the couplet. With its force of libidinal banter this discourse on a woman’s body in the Reetikal automatically fits in the tradition of folk poetry thus offering a pleasant contrast to its frigid treatment in Spenser where the sense of awe towards the lady placed up “above the world so high / like a diamond in the sky” ruins the spontaneity and naturalness of treatment. The class consciousness and the element of guilt associated with transgression punctuate the passion.

Epithalamion: Classroom Interactions

For the paucity of space let us concentrate on the technique of raising cultural parallels that I have tried out in my deconstruction of Epithalamion for a class of first generation migrants from small towns of the Hindi belt. I begin by talking about the fact that, since the Epithalamion was a public form concerned with the religious bonding of pairs in society, and a celebratory one, we can hardly expect much individuality of treatment. As role-playing bride and groom, the protagonists hop and dance around like little puppets. Marriage is the creator of hermaphrodite, some kind of an Ardhanareeshwarix , but here the idea of sex as ‘debt and payment’ has a fuller play. This idea has a long history ranging from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to Victorian pornography, but here it works to anchor marriage in a sexual transaction figured as fundamentally economic, social and political wall – climbing. It is significant that while most Elizabethans turned chiefly to Ovid, Spenser was more vitally affected by the finer act of Virgil! In him one could easily read the happy blend even of Irish Folk and the Roman Classical. His Shepherd’s Calendar reminds us of Indian Barahmasas and the fondness with which he refers to the poor maids of the Irish Jungles, even in the shorter pieces like Epithalamion, reminds us of Indian folksongs which fondly refer to heroines like Seeta and Draupadi interacting with the ordinary little woman on equal intimate terms.

As I suggested this to one batch of Honours students and explained the lines where Spenser is asking little girls from the Irish woods to join his marriage procession, one of my quieter student was reminded of the Doli scene in Phaneeshwaranath Renu’s “Mare Gaye Gulfam Urph Teesri Kasamx” where little girls on the way run after the carriage of the unknown bride singing all kinds of little advises and warnings both to the bride and the groom. In fact, this good-natured banter is basic to all marriage songs.

During the practical criticism of the poem it was useful to tell students that from poets like Spenser they could at best expect a simple fairy tale pleasure sophisticated by polyphonic technique, a simple moral sophisticated by a learned iconography. By way of explaining iconography, the cultural parallel of Jatra comes in very handy; one could tell them that the pageant was one member of a wider class of contemporary forms in which meaning was conveyed iconographically. And this pageant was somewhat like a Jatra, procession or group of symbolic figures in symbolic costume often in symbolic surroundings. Ramnawami or Shivratri Jatra or symbolic processions at Ganapati / Devi / Vishwakarama Visarjan prove excellent illustrations.

Regarding the beloved and the lover in Epithalamion, any reader of this poem is familiar with the sense of vertigo inducted by the endless shifts in scene, time sequence, tone, mood and stance. The lady, of course, does not change at all, at least in the sense that she never gives in, but her inflexibility reinforces the protean and unstable character of the Petrarchan lover. Ultimately what the lover writes about, in the absence of change in the lady, is the change in his attitude towards her. Indian love poems allow a wider variety of roles to women. Women there are depicted as intelligent, talking partners who can counsel, amuse, guide, question, rebel and take some time off for personal fulfillment and gratification too. All the Gopies are librated in the sense that they treat Krishna as their pal who does not mind “Preeti Kalah”(friendly fight) and allows them proper space for independent growth. Ramakant Rath’s “Sri Radha” and Janakivallabh Shastri’s “Radha” are individuals in` their own right. Marvelous is the treatment of Padmawati’s love-hate conflict in Prasad’s “Pralay ki Chhaya”. And so is the pre-modern treatment of love-hate / marriage motifs in Indian tradition of Vipralambh Shringar and Nayikaas of all models and manners, all categories (Mugdha to Praudha, Swakeeya to Parkeeya, Padmini to Hastini) are chirpy, witty, domineering and vibrant. The way Gopies hoot out the “knowledgeable” and the “serene” in Udhava is a case in point.

Another cultural parallel that can be referred to is the perception of time. The theory of Relativity proposes time as the fourth dimension of things. If we analyze the zodiacal motion depicted in the Epithalamion, we would realize that it is in tune with Indian Barahmasa writers who underlined the mystical bonding between man-woman and the wider cosmos.

To conclude, without employing the riff-raff that a mother employs in making her children sit through an art movie, without raising these cultural parallels – it would be practically impossible to make the students sit through the texts of poets like Spenser and Sidney. Only as Barthe’s playful text Epithalamion could invite their participation and reproduce the processes (intellectual and emotional) by which the poems’ struggles come to be verbalized. This we all understand that even reading, the most privatized of all cultural experience ,emerges as a patent tool of international cultural polities today, but it is not as a part of a political agenda – that I suggest the validity of raising cultural parallels. It is basically a strategy of coping up with the bored expressions one encounters in classrooms: “Why should we read texts that do not cater to the basic psychic urge of identification”? If at all it is a part of a political agenda, it is a part of the agenda of survival politics. If at all we have to survive as teachers of half-dead gasping English texts as these, learn we must the tricks of the trade of revitalizing, vitamin- raising, doctoring, adapting and moulding them afresh to suit cultural contexts. How can they dare travel across the seven seas till they are issued a fitness certificate.


i Invocation of gods in Indian Folksongs.

ii Songs of separation marking the subtle change of seasons in all twelve months.

iii Soordas’s epic where Gopi’s sarcastically refutes knowledgeable Udhav’s suggestion of leaving Krishna alone. In the later years, many other poems were modeled on this mode of sarcastic rebuttal.

iv There are two broad divisions of heroines in Sahitya Darpan according to their marital status: ‘Parkiya Nayika’ has an intense affair beyond the confines of marriage. Radha, for instance is a Parkiya Nayika, Swakiya Nayika (married to the lover) is Rukmani.

v Tip to toe depiction as of Padmavati in Jayasi’s Padmavati.

vi They have all written popular poems on the mystical boundary of the soul and the super soul reflected in the deep intimacies of Radha and Krishna.

vii Reetikal refers to that school of poetry in the 17th and 18th  Century which wrote sensual couplets and padas celebrating intense moments of carnal and divine passion to illustrate the rules of Prosody.

viii Nachari songs celebrate the celestial marriage of Shiva and Parvati.

ix In Shiva Purana there is a reference that Shiva held Parvati in such a tight embrace that half of their bodies merged into each other. In Tantra it hints at the right blend of the Male principle and Female principle for the equipoise of creation.

x This story of Renu has been made into a famous Hindi film titled “Teesri Kasam” with Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman as the protagonists.


Anamika is Associate Professor of English at Satyawati College, University of Delhi and is a renowned poet and translator.

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