The poem opens with a present participle, ‘singing’, which immediately indicates activity and enjoyment. It is also self-referential in that the poet himself is ‘singing’ this song to us; it is highly conventional in Classical poetry to begin with a reference to the poet’s song e.g. the first words of Virgil’s Aeneid are (in translation) ‘I sing of arms and the man…’ Abse draws on this convention but also adapts it to his own purposes, using a first-person voice but one which declares an unusual fact: that he has today married his ‘beautiful’, ‘white’ girl ‘in a barley field’. The description of the ‘white’ beloved is conventional in courtly love poetry, and there is a hint of the pastoral tradition in the location of this ‘marriage’. The beloved in courtly poetry is often described in ‘blazon’ style, enumerating her beauties, primary of which is frequently white skin, which is associated with purity and refinement. It is also possible that Abse’s use of ‘white’ here may be linked to the association of the colour white and female beauty in Welsh traditions, as reflected in names such as Bronwen (white breast), Olwen (white trail), Blodwen (white flower), Gwen (white). Moreover, the name ‘Gwen’ is used in medieval Welsh poetry less as a personal name than as a noun simply meaning ‘pretty girl’. The rite of marriage being celebrated in this opening stanza is clearly an unconventional one, bereft of most religious trappings. Though the words of the wedding ceremony are echoed and repeated in ‘I thee wed’, the wedding ring is made of grass. One reading of this line might suggest that the scene conjured up is of children ‘playing at’ marriage; however, the erotic undertones of the succeeding stanzas would appear to undercut that notion. However, the scene conjured up here is certainly endowed with the innocence and simplicity associated with childhood. Male speaker and female beloved are united in the fourth line and in the fifth join together to ‘send’ their love out into the world, as a message of joy and hope.
Alliteration and repetition are used in this stanza to enhance the lyrical tone e.g. ‘beautiful’/’barley’/’blade’; ‘green’/’grass’; ‘love’/‘loveless’; ‘I thee wed, I thee wed’. Both ‘barley’ and ‘grass’ suggest the world of Nature and connote fertility and vibrancy; they also conjure up a colourful scene – white, gold, green – in opposition to the implied drabness of the ‘loveless world’ beyond. There is indeed the suggestion of the lovers constituting a small, self-sufficient world of their own in opposition to the hostile world outside. In this regard, the imagery is reminiscent of John Donne’s famous love poem, ‘The Sun Rising’, in which the lovers’ bed is a world in itself: addressing the morning sun, the speaker declares in the final lines of the poem: ‘Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;/This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.’ (Abse also mentions the lovers’ ‘bed’ in the final stanza). Yet Abse’s lovers are not as self-absorbed as Donne’s; they also ‘send’ their love to the world outside, to ‘all the living and all the dead.’ Their love is seen as a blessing or balm, even to the dead, as if their vitality is capable of assuaging the pain of mortality.
 Shakespeare mocks this courtly tradition in his well-known sonnet 130, ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, in which he also mentions ‘If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun’, undercutting the necessity for the beloved’s skin to be ‘white’.
Comments on the Poem as a Whole
‘Epithalamion’ is an early poem by Dannie Abse, first published in his second volume of verse, Walking under Water (1952). In a 1982 interview, Abse told Joseph Cohen, author of the first critical book about his work, that the poem had been written in a period when he himself was ‘immature’ and when the fashionable literary mode of the time was ‘neo-romantic’. When Cohen states that he assumes that the poem ‘came out of actual experience’, Abse dryly observes ‘I don’t recall ever making love to a girl in a barley field!’ Earlier, in a 1980 essay entitled ‘A Voice of my Own,’ Abse had suggested that the poem lacks his distinctive ‘voice’ as a poet, which only developed later; instead, he regards it as an ‘anonymous’ poem which belongs to ‘the central English lyrical tradition’. He indicates that it was written at a time when he was still experimenting as a poet, trying to find his own voice, and to shake off the influence of the poets he greatly admired at the time, namely Dylan Thomas and Rainer Maria Rilke. That there are certainly echoes of the voice and imagery, as well as the formal precision of Dylan Thomas in the poem, suggests that Abse was not entirely successful in shaking off this influence. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful lyric poem which, unsurprisingly, has often been anthologised. Its voice comes across as that of a young man, with the freshness and energy of youth, as well as the idealism. It is, as the title suggests, a celebratory poem, and yet it is also one in which human temporality and mortality are acknowledged and mourned. A poem dating from the very early 1950s, it is of its time in its neo-romantic tone as well as its suppression of the female voice. If Abse in this early poem has yet to discover his own distinctive voice, he nevertheless displays technical skill, rhythmic panache, and a subtle awareness of poetic traditions in the creation of a memorable lyric full of verbal beauty.
 Joseph Cohen, ‘Conversations with Dannie Abse’, in Dannie Abse: A Sourcebook, ed. Cary Archard (Bridgend: Seren, 2009) pp. 167-182 (172).
 Dannie Abse, ‘A Voice of my Own’, in Dannie Abse: A Sourcebook, ed. Cary Archard (Bridgend: Seren, 2009) pp. 48-56 (53).