Poetry

“Southbound Epithalamium,” by Melissa Crow

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s poem reveals its form in its title; an epithalamium is “a song or poem in honor of a bride and bridegroom,” and it derives from the Latin & Greek words epi- (at or near) and thalamos (room or bridal chamber). [Source here] The Poetry Foundation defines it as a “lyric poem in praise of Hymen (the Greek god of marriage)” often used to bless “a wedding, and in modern times . . . often read at the wedding ceremony or reception,” while referring readers to Edmund Spenser’s classic, similarly named exemplar, “Epithalamion.” [Source here]

Some view the Old Testament Song of Songs as an epithalamium on the marriage of Solomon to the Pharaoh’s daughter. Sappho is famous for writing these “wedding songs,” and Catullus wrote at least two, one of which you can read here. Another example, written by e. e. cummings, is here,  and the Academy of American Poets collects others here. Today’s poem adds its own gloss on the form by taking the point of view of the prospective (or new) bride and by returning to the word’s roots by prioritizing place over the poem’s starring characters.

“Southbound Epithalamium” is written in form: six tercets of blank verse, that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter. Similes are a traditional part of the form, usually used to compare the groom to, say, a God or warrior, and the bride to flowers or fruit and other objects from nature (some things, readers, just never change). In a departure from tradition, both bride and groom are conspicuously absent from today’s epithalamium, which focuses instead on setting or place; nor do I find a single simile (or metaphor). More intimate than most epithalamiums, it’s written in the form of direct address to the groom (“you”) from the bride (“I”), who is the first-person speaker.

Even though the poem (mostly) eschews end rhyme, its regular meter and many repetitions of sound within lines contribute to its musicality. Every stanza uses internal rhyme—full or near rhyming within lines (and sometimes, within a word) —at least one time: “winterlessness” in stanza 1; “brick walks” and “widow spider” in stanza 2; “eyes / appears” in stanza 3; “eastern- / facing,” “danger / December,” and “deliciousness” in stanza 4; “light / alright,” “know / go,” and “northern / girl” in stanza 5 and “unbundled” in stanza 6. The last stanza ups the ante by including the poem’s only example of end rhyme: “blue” and “you” in its last two lines. These lines sing, too, with assonance (repeated vowel sounds) and consonance (repeated consonant sounds). In the first stanza alone, we hear triple assonance in “knees and drink sweet tea.” Most stanzas feature at least one instance of consonance, and some, like the first with its “January, July” and “fat-fist,” have two. An especially notable run of sound repetitions occurs in lines 15-17: “cheek-chapped / northern girl. Wool-wrapped,” where “cheek-chapped” shows initial consonance, “northern girl” slant rhymes the first syllable of “northern” with the first phoneme of “girl,” and “wool-wrapped” does both things, using initial consonance and rhyming “chapped” with “wrapped.”

The poem could be summarized as a new or prospective bride restating a modern version of Ruth’s well-known speech from the Old Testament:

Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. [Ruth 1:16]

Even though Ruth is actually talking to her mother-in-law (Naomi) in the biblical passage, it’s often read at weddings (mine, for example) as a pledge of loyalty from the bride to the groom. In the poem, the speaker explains to her husband that, although her heart and roots are in New England (or some such cold, northern climate), she will nevertheless follow him to where he lives, somewhere a whole lot warmer and, I presume from the reference to “magnolia petals,” possibly in the American South. Here the poem inverts our expectations by seeming to prefer winter and cold over summer and heat and makes clear that the move would be a negative but for the fact that it brings the speaker closer to her husband.

Let’s go through the poem in a little more detail. Line 1 opens with what almost sounds like a complaint, short-circuited immediately in the next line’s quick acquiescence, “And I do.” Against her prior practice and perhaps even nature, the speaker bares her knees and drinks iced tea equally in January and July. That’s a positive image (at least to those of us who prefer warmer weather), but the next images are less so: magnolia petals are grotesquely fleshy and lie “rotting” on a lawn along with lizards and poisonous spiders. Stanza 3 makes an “on the other hand” kind of rhetorical move, listing two things that the speaker won’t miss after leaving her own cooler climate: black ice and deer that make winter roads dangerous. Even this list of supposed negatives, though, becomes something glowing and positive in that lovely house “solid and with its pocket of secret heat” (line 9).

Stanza 4 sums up, with the speaker acknowledging what the prior stanza suggests—she loves both the danger and the deliciousness of December, and here she waxes lyrical, remembering long days spent in a window focused eastward on the vanishing light. As if to avoid tipping all the way into elegy or complaint, though, the speaker draws herself up short with “It’s alright,” something that could be read either as reconciliation to the move or instead as the teeniest bit grudging: the colloquial “It’s all good,” when really, it isn’t.

The “But” that begins line 14 signals a turn. The speaker has laid out what she likes and does not like about the new, warmer home as well as all she’ll miss from the old and now seems resigned to the move. “But,” she says, no matter where she goes, she’ll carry the home she loves within her. “Know where I go” recalls at the same time it subverts the passage from Ruth, allowing the speaker to retain her agency, identity, and history in a way that the biblical Ruth never could. “[K]now where I go I carry this cheek-chapped / northern girl,” she says, in a line that sounds peremptory, like a command spoken by someone with a whole lot more independence than Old Testament Ruth. More than that, she will carry her own mother with her as well in the memory of making “boot prints” from her door to the bus stop in a snowy dawn.

The poem’s very moving last line makes one last turn. After those lines verging on complaint or argument that express the speaker’s preference not to move south, she finally makes it clear that she will choose husband over place—that she will “follow” him. At the same time it is equally clear that the person who will follow him will not, like Ruth, forsake her personal history or childhood home. This bride will relocate but will do it carrying within her the place and loved ones she left. From now on, anytime anyone asks me to read the passage from Ruth at their wedding, I plan to suggest reading this poem instead.

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