The Last Pages of Emma: Austen's Epithalamium. (Miscellany)

By Emsley, Sarah | Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

The Last Pages of Emma: Austen's Epithalamium. (Miscellany)


Emsley, Sarah, Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


AT THE JANE AUSTEN BICENTENNIAL CONFERENCE held at the University Alberta in 1975, George Whalley gave a paper in which he suggested that Austen is a poet. In saying this he wasn't merely stating the obvious, which is that she did write verse, but instead he was arguing that it is something about the power of her prose that makes her a poet. He writes,

I should like to suggest that Jane Austen is a poet in two senses: (a) in her craftsmanship in language; and (b) in the conduct of the action within each novel. In the first sense, we need to consider fine-grained detail with an ear alert to the dynamics of language; in the second, we are concerned with the disposition of forces within the whole universe of the novel, particularly that mutual definition of plot and character the product of which Aristotle called drama. (108)

The elements of the first sense he identifies as irony, precision, and the symbolic naming (rather than describing) of things; the second sense is the "realising of a stylised plot in probable action" (132). He admits that his argument "may be a bit dense," but says that the topic is "too simple to be anything but unmanageable" (109). Testing the full implications of Whalley's argument as it applies to the novels in general would be a lengthy undertaking; for now I shall focus very specifically on the ending of Emma, which seems to me to bear a remarkable similarity to the poetic genre of the epithalamium, or marriage poem, despite the fact that it is prose.

The epithalamium is usually thought of as a classical or renaissance genre, with Edmund Spenser's "Epithalamion" (1595) as the most famous example in English. (There are a number of variants of the word--"epithalamium" and "epithalamia" are the Latin terms, with English versions such as "epithalamion" and "epithalamies," and, for a betrothal poem, "prothalamion.") During the renaissance revival of the genre, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Crashaw, Vaughan, and Dryden all composed epithalamia inspired by the wedding poetry of Sappho, Aristophanes, Euripides, Theocritus, Catullus, Statius, and Claudian. There were even a few medieval epithalamia, by Chaucer, Dunbar, Lydgate, and James I of Scotland. Highly formal and often quite formulaic--George Puttenham's Art of English Poesie (1689) and Julius Caesar Scaliger's Poetices libri septem (1561) provided guidelines for conventional composition--epithalamia usually praise the beauty and character of bride and bridegroom, talk about t heir families, and celebrate unity, stability, and harmony, sometimes incorporating traditional fescennine verses designed to ward off evil by poking fun at it, and invariably ending with blessings and benedictions.

Literally, the term "epithalamium" (from the Greek words epi + thalamos) refers to a song, often a kind of folk-song, sung outside the nuptial chamber, just before the consummation of the marriage, but as Virginia Tufte writes in The Poetry of Marriage: The Epithalamium in Europe and its Development in England (1970), even in classical times poets "had begun to call almost any kind of wedding song or poem an epithalamium, and before long they applied the term to certain types of poetry and prose which dealt with subjects unrelated to marriage except in a metaphorical way" (3)-such as spiritual marriage or the union of two rivers (Spenser, "The Thames doth the Medway Wed"). The boundaries of the genre are not firm, and thus the term is not limited to poetry; therefore, whether the conception of Austen is expanded from novelist to poet, or the definition of the epithalamium is expanded to include prose as well as poetry, it is possible to see Austen as the author of an epithalamium. How, then, does the traditio n of the epithalamium emerge in the ending of Emma, and why is it useful to think of Austen in this unconventional way?

Near the ending of the novel, as is conventional in the epithalamium, bride and bridegroom are individually and jointly praised. …

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