When reversion turns into revolution – and blowing a reigning monarch, who is habitually unfaithfull to his queen, to kingdom come with the message
‘Only the virtuous soul shall live, and
the soul which is not virtuous shall die’
might easily be interpreted like that – artistic innocence turns into high treason. And so, even without any information whether the partsongs have ever been performed in the presence of King Edward, logic reasoning has led step by step into absurdity. To prepare music to such an objective would have been criminal in itself, but Ralph Vaughan Williams to plot against his sovereign is as ridiculous a thought as, for instance, George Herbert to write pornography.
The contents of Sweet Day made me therefore soon decide I was dealing with an Edwardian mystification. But when I revealed my findings to an Englishman, he responded instantaniously by quoting the first lines by heart. This sample from ‘Shakespeare’s Bawdy’ happens to be a much used textbook example of Herbert’s style. It was the Department of English from Amsterdam Free University that informed me subsequently that: “the poem is not titled ‘Sweet Day’ but ‘Vertue’ (virtue), as all religious poetry of GH it was first published in 1633.” It should be impossible, but this perfect Shakespeare imitation indeed is a genuine Herbert.
RVW not only renamed the poem, he also removed the second quatrain. Because this has no negative effect on the remainder, Virtue is reduced to Sweet Day by the removal of four superfluous lines. With this quatrain in its proper place, it is virtually impossible to deny that the Herbert’s rose belongs to the botanic genus Rosa. Which apparently rules out the liberty to consider the word to represent a pretty girl, as the English language would have allowed otherwise. And so all ambiguity collapses to nought; the rose is used here as a metaphor, showing that in the midst of life we are in death:
Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave,
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.
Which leaves us with sixteen lines of first rate religious poetry with a timber like structure and another nasty problem: it is impossible for these Elizabethan partsongs to exist when Herbert did not enable the reduction Virtue for the very purpose of enabling Ralph Vaughan Williams to confront Edward VII with his opinion on the king’s private affairs. Had I been aware of this conflicting piece of evidence from the beginning, I had very likely failed to recognize what the poem is telling sub rosa. And would have lacked a vital link in the chain of reasoning.
Lack of knowledge was for once to my advantage, I started my research with nothing but the half forgotten outlines of English history in mind, and an old schoolbook on the country’s literature on my desk. When I faced all double dealings in their almost perfect symmetry -12, 9 and 12 lines = 73, 65 and 74 words – with identical twin poems flanking the centre piece my conclusion was an obvious one. The more because I could not find the title ‘Sweet Day’ in the index of Herbert’s poetry. Obvious because the second line seems to be a poetic view on the constitutional monarchy. A feature that cannot be found in a genuinly seventeenth century document. The next paragraphs will show that it would almost certainly have stopped me in my tracks if I had known the complete poem from the beginning.
As things stand now, it is as if the composer has personally asked Herbert to write exactly the words he needed to his music. Words from a class neither Ralph Vaughan Williams nor George Herbert have ever been associated with in their entire lifes, and including a reference to a modern constitutional monarchy, with the king acting as his government’s ‘bridle’ to lead society. In short: ‘Three Elizabethan Part Songs’ exists against all reason. And that is the optimistic assessment.
When taken into account that rulers by ancient tradition are entitled to sow their seed as wide as humanly possible, – once they had in a certain primitive culture even the right to stand in for their male subjects in their first wedded night – it is absolutely not done to threaten a king with removal for having plenty of mistresses. Their (rumoured, but never officially confirmed) numbers rather served between colleagues for status symbols.
And as if things are not complicated enough allready, the threat is camouflaged far too well to achieve anything. King Edward lived out his life untroubled by guilt or revolution, while Ralph Vaughan Williams in his turn was left in peace by the public prosecutor. So stating this cycle to exist against all reason is by no means strong enough:
The three-part song is against all reason.