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The Songs of Shakespeare

Written by: Edmund William Gosse

Among the "co-supremes and stars of love" which form the constellated glory of our greatest poet there is one small splendour which we are apt to overlook in our general survey. But, if we isolate it from other considerations, it is surely no small thing that Shakespeare created and introduced into our literature the Dramatic Song. If with statistical finger we turn the pages of all his plays, we shall discover, not perhaps without surprise, that these contain not fewer than fifty strains of lyrical measure. Some of the fifty, to be sure, are mere star-dust, but others include some of the very jewels of our tongue. They range in form from the sophisticated quatorzains of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (where, however, comes "Who is Silvia?") to the reckless snatches of melody in Hamlet. But all have a character which is Shakespearean, and this regardless of the question so often raised, and so incapable of reply, as to whether some of the wilder ones are Shakespeare's composition or no. Whoever originally may have written such scraps as "They bore him bare-faced on the bier" and "Come o'er the bourne, Bessy, to me," the spirit of Shakespeare now pervades and possesses them.

Our poet was a prodigious innovator in this as in so many other matters. Of course, the idea and practice of musical interludes in plays was not quite novel. In Shakespeare's early youth that remarkable artist in language, John Lyly, had presented songs in several of his plays, and these were notable for what his contemporary, Henry Upchear, called "their labouring beauty." We may notice that Lyly's[Pg 32] songs were not printed till long after Shakespeare's death, but doubtless he had listened to them. Peele and Greene had brilliant lyrical gifts, but they did not exercise them in their dramas, nor did Lodge, whose novel of Rosalynde (1590) contains the only two precedent songs which we could willingly add to Shakespeare's juvenile repertory. But while I think it would be rash to deny that the lyrics of Lodge and Lyly had their direct influence on the style of Shakespeare, neither of those admirable precursors conceived the possibility of making the Song an integral part of the development of the drama. This was Shakespeare's invention, and he applied it with a technical adroitness which had never been dreamed of before and was never rivalled after.

This was not apprehended by the early critics of our divine poet, and has never yet, perhaps, received all the attention it deserves. We may find ourselves bewildered if we glance at what the eighteenth-century commentators said, for instance, about the songs in Twelfth Night. They called the adorable rhapsodies of the Clown "absurd" and "unintelligible"; "O Mistress mine" was in their ears "meaningless"; "When that I was" appeared to them "degraded buffoonery." They did not perceive the close and indispensable connection between the Clown's song and the action of the piece, although the poet had been careful to point out that it was a moral song "dulcet in contagion," and too good, except for sarcasm, to be wasted on Sir Andrew and Sir Toby. The critics neglected to note what the Duke says about "Come away, come away, Death," and they prattled in their blindness as to whether this must not really have been sung by Viola, all the while insensible to the poignant dramatic value of it as warbled by the ironic Clown in the presence of the blinded pair. But indeed the whole of Twelfth Night is burdened with melody; behind every garden-door a lute is tinkling, and[Pg 33] at each change of scene some unseen hand is overheard touching a harp-string. The lovely, infatuated lyrics arrive, dramatically, to relieve this musical tension at its height.

Rather different, and perhaps still more subtle, is the case of A Winter's Tale, where the musical obsession is less prominent, and where the songs are all delivered from the fantastic lips of Autolycus. Here again the old critics were very wonderful. Dr. Burney puts "When daffodils begin to peer" and "Lawn as white as driven snow" into one bag, and flings it upon the dust-heap, as "two nonsensical songs" sung by "a pickpocket." Dr. Warburton blushed to think that such "nonsense" could be foisted on Shakespeare's text. Strange that those learned men were unable to see, not merely that the rogue-songs are intensely human and pointedly Shakespearean, but that they are an integral part of the drama. They complete the revelation of the complex temperament of Autolycus, with his passion for flowers and millinery, his hysterical balancing between laughter and tears, his impish mendacity, his sudden sentimentality, like the Clown's

"Not a friend, not a friend greetMy poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown!"

It is in these subtle lyrical amalgams of humour and tenderness that the firm hand of the creator of character reveals itself.

But it is in The Tempest that Shakespeare's supremacy as a writer of songs is most brilliantly developed. Here are seven or eight lyrics, and among them are some of the loveliest things that any man has written. What was ever composed more liquid, more elastic, more delicately fairy-like than Ariel's First Song?

"Come unto these yellow sands,And then take hands:Curtsied when you have, and kiss'd,—The wild waves whist."

[Pg 34]That is, not "kissed the wild waves," as ingenious punctuators pretend, but, parenthetically, "kissed one another,—the wild waves being silent the while." Even fairies do not kiss waves, than which no embrace could be conceived less rewarding. Has any one remarked the echo of Marlowe here, from Hero and Leander,

"when all is whist and still,Save that the sea playing on yellow sandSends forth a rattling murmur to the land!"

But Marlowe, with all his gifts, could never have written the lyrical parts of The Tempest. This song is in emotional sympathy with Ferdinand, and in the truest sense dramatic, not a piece of pretty verse foisted in to add to the entertainment.

Ariel's Second Song has been compared with Webster's "Call for the robin redbreast" in The White Devil, but solemn as Webster's dirge is, it tolls, it docs not sing to us. Shakespeare's "ditty," as Ferdinand calls it, is like a breath of the west wind over an æolian harp. Where, in any language, has ease of metre triumphed more adorably than in Ariel's Fourth Song,—"Where the bee sucks"? Dowden saw in Ariel the imaginative genius of English poetry, recently delivered from Sycorax. If we glance at Dry den's recension of The Tempest we may be inclined to think that the "wicked dam" soon won back her mastery. With all respect to Dryden, what are we to think of his discretion in eking out Shakespeare's insufficiencies with such staves as this:—

"Upon the floods we'll sing and playAnd celebrate a halcyon day;Great Nephew Aeolus make no noise,Muzzle your roaring boys."

and so forth? What had happened to the ear of England in seventy years?[Pg 35]

As a matter of fact the perfection of dramatic song scarcely survived Shakespeare himself. The early Jacobeans, Heywood, Ford, and Dekker in particular, broke out occasionally in delicate ditties. But most playwrights, like Massinger, were persistently pedestrian. The only man who came at all close to Shakespeare as a lyrist was John Fletcher, whose "Lay a garland on my hearse" nobody could challenge if it were found printed first in a Shakespeare quarto. The three great songs in "Valentinian" have almost more splendour than any of Shakespeare's, though never quite the intimate beauty, the singing spontaneity of "Under the greenwood tree" or "Hark, hark, the lark." It has grown to be the habit of anthologists to assert Shakespeare's right to "Roses, their sharp spikes being gone." The mere fact of its loveliness and perfection gives them no authority to do so; and to my ear the rather stately procession of syllables is reminiscent of Fletcher. We shall never be certain; and who would not swear that "Hear, ye ladies that are coy" was by the same hand that wrote "Sigh no more, ladies," if we were not sure of the contrary? But the most effective test, even in the case of Fletcher, is to see whether the trill of song is, or is not, an inherent portion of the dramatic structure of the play. This is the hall-mark of Shakespeare, and perhaps of him alone.


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