Epithalamium by Rebecca Johnstone

At the weekend I attended the most gorgeous wedding of two people I’ve known for a long time.

Epithalamium, Rebecca Johnstone

It was in a castle in a quiet, rural setting. Rowallan Castle.

There were fairy lights and candles and delicate foliage and a crackling fire. Portraits and birds lined the walls and a Highland Cow head guarded the door - a nice alternative to a stag?

Epithalamium, Rebecca Johnstone
Epithalamium, Rebecca Johnstone
Epithalamium, Rebecca Johnstone
Epithalamium, Rebecca Johnstone

The bride read her vows with emotion and feeling. When she welled up, so did I. I couldn’t help it.

It feels like such an intimate and vulnerable moment to witness two people declare their love in front of family and friends. Pressure almost: not to make a mistake, not to stumble over lines. Love is quiet and secret, and apart from a wedding, doesn’t usually require or demand an audience - quite the opposite.

My own wedding was very small, like a dozen other people, which makes 13 - lucky for some?

Whenever I attend a wedding now, I recall how I felt on my special day and fall in love all over again.

I think it should be mandatory for couples to attend a wedding at least every few years. I’m sure it would lower the divorce rates exponentially. How can you not fall in love (again) at a wedding?

Even a heart in the lichen outside!

Even a heart in the lichen outside!

We had one of the amazing suites at the castle, which seemed bigger than some houses. I particularly loved the ‘study’ which the husband took over for the assemblage of his outfit - the traditional kilt and associated paraphernalia. (Wedding outfits are so easy for men!)

Epithalamium, Rebecca Johnstone

There was something else very special about the day - one of the readings which really struck a chord with me. It was called EPITHALAMIUM and at first I assumed that to be the title of the poem. (And it seemed like such a tongue-twisting title I was relieved not to be reading it!)

Often it’s hard to take in the words of a poem when it is read out to you. I find that as a visual person, I prefer to read things myself to really understand it, as though it unfolds from the page as my eyes rest on the words.

A few words and phrases were unique enough to stand out straight away: songbird, berry blossoms, luminous constellations, moonshine, universe of stars. - but I knew I wanted to read this poem again. Coincidentally, my husband and I were seated next to the friend who had delivered the reading, and she let me read her copy again.

this is your new garden, a whole wide

world of it, so green and songbird fresh,

all yours to map and fill with luminous

constellations of fruit and berry blossoms

this is your new garden, tend it as if

all the young shoots that promise

a succulent harvest of root and ear

will be young and tender for all time

this is your garden, there will always be

much hoeing and raking, the clearing

of weeds and sowing of seeds will ask

patience, attention, forgiving laughter

this is the garden you want to live in, it's not

all sunshine - there's moonshine too, all earth

needs storms, but when dark clouds peel back,

see your garden bloom into a universe of stars

It was written by Aonghas MacNeacail and is included in ‘Handfast, Scottish Poems for Weddings and Affirmations’, published by the Scottish Poetry Library in association with Polygon (2004).

Each of our tables was named after a tree or plant (we were ‘Willow’), and I realised just how perfect this poem is for my friends who are both interested in nature and gardening. The lines are simple yet so evocative, especially the part about ‘all earth needs storms’ (I think marriage can be likened to a multitude of weather systems as well as a garden!).

When I had memorised the word ‘Epithalamium’, I tried looking it up and discovered that rather than the title of this particular poem, it is a literary form describing a lyric poem written for a bride on the way to her marital chamber. I can’t believe I had never heard of this before now, but am so happy I discovered it in the midst of such a wonderful occasion (where better?).

Thank you to Chloe and Paul for this gem of knowledge.

Whenever I hear or see mention of epithalamia in the future, I will be forever transported back to their special day, Saturday 18th May 2019.

Epithalamium, Rebecca Johnstone