Part 2


A textcritical approach of the Elizabethan partsongs


A short introduction to the second part of this paper.

One of the most outstanding features of the human mind, is its strange incapability to accept – or even to recognize – the most obvious facts. That is to say: inconvenient obvious facts. Such an ostrich like attitude is in general no help to improve knowledge. But this appears not always to be a disadvantage. As demonstrated in the case of that lecture, back in the sixties, on a seventeenth century painting. The renowned expert vividly explained to his audience a rather famous picture of a young lady in every detail, the use of symbols included. Yet he managed to give no clue whatsoever on the motives of an attractive girl, to offer the beholder a plate overcrowded with oysters, while moving backwards into her bedroom with an inviting expression on her face.

At least he had achieved that his audience did admire this masterpiece.

As a rule, however, it is to a disastrous effect when experts submerge their heads in sand. Take for instance all those admiring comments on the short Elizabethan love song ‘O Mistress Mine’ (Also known as ‘Carpe Diem’). The author being William Shakespeare himself is apparently all it takes to leave a dramatic collapse of quality – taking place in only twelve lines – unmentioned. There is in fact as little poetry in the final triplet as there is clothing on an emperor in a certain tale by Andersen. Yet, the title of OMM should be written in capitals. Its final chord might sound a little disappointing at first, but for those willing to accept this, there is a host of hidden extra’s in this song. Turning it into a box where sweets compacted lie.

The courage to bring Shakespeare down to one’s own level, is of course only to be found in another genius: in 1913 it was the Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) who linked ‘O Mistress Mine’ to two other poems, in which the collapse of quality is much easier to admit.

The first part of this triplet, titled ‘An impossible combination’, demonstrated in which way this set of three independent poems by different authors establishes a single story about reduced virtue. Reason to regard this cycle, so to speak, as a singularity. And as modern physics learns; a singularity is a spot where a large quantity of matter is concentrated in little space. From the amount of information stored in following 33 lines, and its reluctancy to reveal itself, one might conclude the authors of this Three-Part Elizabethan Song were way ahead of their time.

Sweet Day (ca. 1625)

Sweet day! so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky,
The dew shall weep thy fall tonight;
——-For thou must die.

Sweet spring! full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie,
My music shows ye have your closes,
——-And all must die.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
——-Then chiefly lives.


The Willow Song   (1603/4)

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
——-Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
——-Sing, willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
——-Sing, willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones;
——-Sing, willow, willow, willow:
Sing all a green willow must be my garland.



O mistress mine! where are you roaming?
O! stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
—–That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
—–Every wise man’s son doth know.

What is love? ‘t is not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
—–What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty,
—–Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

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Part One ; or, An Impossible Combination

Part Two ; or, Adults Only

Part Three ; or, Revolutionary Art

Part II



The authors of this sequence are George Herbert (1593-1633; SD), William Shakespeare (1564-1616; TWS & OMM), and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872- 1958; text & music). The composer’s responsibility for the text can not be mentioned without some explanation. Of course he put the words to music and released the pieces as a cycle, but his contribution to the wordsequence goes far beyond selecting the poems: he did not select them in full, to begin with. But RVW to delete lines from these poems, is no matter of reversing the author’s labour of adding them, but of completing their job. As one knows : in order to maintain quality standards, writing is mainly a matter of deleting.

And in the case of The Willow Song deleting lines ten to thirteen is the obvious thing to do; for dramatic effect – these lines come from the play ‘Othello’ – Shakespeare carefully dropped his standards towards the end. The meter, for instance, derails rather spectacularly in the second half of line nine and again in the first half of line eleven (which is printed a little further ahead in this article). Line nine is a natural conclusion to the first part, but from a storytellers point of view the remainder cannot be omitted. Therefore a song composed on the first nine lines only, is visibly incomplete. It is the merit of Ralph Vaughan Williams to have identified O Mistress Mine as the sequel’s natural substitution. As a result the original four lines are in the context of this cycle superfluous, and that is why he decided to delete them, not the difficulty to invent fitting music.

Sweet Day is also lacking four lines, and they are, again, superfluous: to people unfamiliar with the original it is impossible to notice that one of the quatrains is missing. The second one to be precise:

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. 

In itself this is no bad poetry, but back in place the meter appears to derail in the first two lines as spectacular as in Willow. And this is only the least argument to regard this quatrain as all but matching the quality of the other ones: Vaughan Williams may have considered himself lucky that it contributes nothing significant to the poem – it is very difficult to invent a common melody on verses that differ so much in their meters – but it is not exactly a compliment to the author to prove a full quarter of his poem irrelevant: just try what happens if another quatrain is deleted instead.

Of course it would be an insult to his craftmanship to suggest that Vaughan Williams avoided a problem he was incapable to solve: in both this song’s concluding verses he deals in a superb way with the irregular meters of the first lines. A much better ground to remove this quatrain is presented in Part One, dealing with the way in which three stand alone pieces of music were combined to a cycle. The usefullness of Sweet Day as an introduction for The Willow Song depends on renaming it ‘Reduced Virtue’: Virtue being the title under which the unreduced poem was originally published.


Answering a question by means of such wordplay makes a strong impression of solving some kind of crossword. The kind of wordsubstitution also known – in Dutch anyway – as; ‘cryptogram’, which in turn is Latin for ‘coded message’. And judged by the host of enigmatic details introduced in Part One, it would be no exaggeration to regard the cycle of Three Elizabethan Part Songs as cryptic. Could this be because it was designed as an encoded message in the first place? It would be an interesting explanation for its numerous strange features, but the story that links the songs together, is far too common and easy to spot to be such a message. If there is one, it must be deeper down and it must be something important to justify such an elaborate scheme.

It is no coincidence that this comment on the complete cycle is very similar to the one I made in Part One on the seventh line of Sweet Day. The line that seems to have deeper grounds as the obvious interpretation of foretelling death. The line that is so clearly marked by its grammar, and that deals with music that does not exist. The line, in fact, that in referring to music has its counterparts in both The Willow Song and O Mistress Mine; the refrain and the third line respectively. And when compared, especially this third line looks rather interesting:

That can sing both high and low

Once more we are facing a line that does everything to attract the attention. By grammar to begin with; ‘that’ is referring to the singer. Apart from this alert signal, however, the line might be considered perfect in its place in a song. Yet it could not be spotted in a less fitting environment. The singer has only twelve lines at his disposal to express his ambigious feelings towards his unfaithfull mistress, and he is now wasting seven precious words to tell her something he can demonstrate without the slightest effort, as both the original setting by Thomas Morley (1557 – 1603) and the one by Ralph Vaughan Williams at this very spot prove.

And thus the innocent reader is confronted with yet another reversion; does SD feature some words on music that does not exist, in OMM it is the music that denies some words their reason to be. The average crossword enthousiast by now figures out in no time which way TWS fits into this pattern. But after four centuries there is no need to hurry. So, in order to decipher the message methodically, at first the cycle’s overall structure will be determined. And, funny enough, this structure is a message in itself. The poetry of both SD and TWS is easily summarized in prose, resulting in:

Only the virtuous soul shall live
The soul which is not virtuous shall die

Two contrasting versions of the same object; divine love, the main theme of all Herbert’s poetry, and adult(erous) human love from Othello are making a single statement of two lines, the second one repeating the first by contrast. And this confirms the main conclusion of Part One; Virtue is indeed carefully designed to establish the cycle. SD’s combination with TWS is perfectly resembling the structure of the opening triplet from OMM: two lines of love poetry preceding a single prosaïc statement containing a sharp contrast. And OMM’s summary also sounds familiar:

I care not for virtuous life



Lightfooted as it is, this song from the comedy Twelfht-Night is not only a reproach, it is also a revenge. The story it tells is identical to this removed part of TWS, but in OMM we hear things from his point of view. This is her’s:

Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve.
I call’d my Love false love, but what said he then?
           Sing, willow, willow, willow,
If I court moe women, you’ll couch with moe men. 

“If she is unfaithfull to me, why should I be any better?” is all the justification he needs for his own betrayal. Well, who should blame him? Not his heartbroken mistress anyway. But rewritten in OMM-terms the same confession appears to state things rather directly: “To be honest; the sweet-and-twenty that must kiss me without delay, is not that mistress mine.”

Don’t tell me this comes as a surprise. You have been told by the fool’s very first line; the mistress is not there! And doubling the number of the ‘True Love’s’ lovers is only the first in a host of brilliant moves that makes Twelfth-Night marvellous lecture. Take for instance these three or four innocent looking lines from act II; iii

    Clown          : Would you have a love-song, or a song
of good
 (read: virtuous) life?
    Sir Toby      : A love-song, a love song.
   Sir Andrew  : Ay, ay, I care not for good life.

On which request the clown, at the spur of the moment, performs a song on that special kind of love that cares not for good life. Meanwhile his songtext’s architectural beauty is of the class that forces heads to turn. O! just stay a while with this love(ly) poem, and see how gracious she is: without exception all triplets feature a close-knit and passionate couple(t), followed at a short intake of breath’s distance by a single (line). These singles are making pairs as well, nevertheless, being separated their passion is obviously on the back burner: they are all unromantic observations.

O mistress mine! where are you roaming?
O! stay and hear; your true love’s coming,

That can sing both high and low.             etc.

And this first sample of the architecture is enough to betray the love story to be nothing but a fairy tale. Compared to the remarkable precise rhyme in the other lines – unlike to many other languages, English rhyme is not obliged to match both phonetically and visually – the couple(t) of the mistress and her true love ends up in sharp disagreement. A fact linking the song subtly but firmly to TWS (the willow being a symbol for forsaken or betrayed love); the poor soul is apparently not spilling tears by the stream for nothing.

Because TWS is also attached to SD, this centre piece connects the Herbert with OMM. This relation is superficial yet, but a more direct intercourse is to be derived from the similarity between the musical lines. Still the outer pair will only meet through mediation of its go-between:




Untill now the partsongs were dealing with true love. But, as the summaries confirm, this is by definition not the subject of the covered story that should be there. And as the first trace of a cryptic message is found in the centre of Sweet Day, its key is the centre part of the overall song.

It is music that does not exist

Whatever Desdemona may think of it; willows never sing. The Song of Willow is therefore irrelevant; only the spoken word counts here. And Shakespeare aptly inserts quite a lot of them. Beginning halfway:

‘Othello; the Moor of Venice’ – Act IV; iii

… fell from her, and soften’d the stones;
Sing, willow…
‘Lay by these.’

At first sight this is an instruction to roommaid Emilia, but a more carefull look in the New Webster’s Dictionary reveals that this says in old English something like: ‘Song in itself’. Desdemona resumes singing, and the audience therefore hasn’t heard enough allready to call it a song. To people taking a singing willow for granted, the effect is that Shakespeare apparently claims this stage song to be nothing but some incidental music. Which produces a contradiction to the obvious fact that this song is purposedly inserted as a dramatic turn of the screw that will unavoidably squeeze Desdemona to death. And so there can be little doubt that the interruption in fact to announce that the real song is not in the singing, but in the inserted prose. Then, within seconds, follows:

…willow, willow,
‘Prithee, hie thee: he’ll come anon’,

In modern English this says: ‘Please go, he will come at once. And ‘to come’ is in daily use just a word, so there should be absolutely no reason whatsoever to suppose that Desdemona refers to sex. The word only shifts to crude language in close connection with ‘to lay’ anyway.

But who is ‘he’? Not husband Othello, only turning up in the dead of night to strangle her. Her long waiting for him to join her between the very sheets that were in use during their first wedded night, is therefore nothing compared to human life. So she indeed announces her untimely end; it is Death who comes to her at once. And he comes in raging passion: a strangulation involves very close body contact and strong sexual feelings.

A ‘ladykiller’ is known to make lots of women ‘die’ in passion. The sexually deranged literal version is almost by definition a strangler. Domestic violence may result in a severely battered lady, but repulsive as it is, this kind of abuse is only applied to control her and therefore never kills on purpose. 

 …Sing all a green willow must be my garland.
Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve.
‘No, that is not next.  Harke, who is’t that knocks?’
Emilia: It is the wind.

Again; her words might have nothing to do with making a baby – Death himself is at her door – but Emilia’s answer certainly has: one can imagine lots of sounds produced by the wind in the willows, but knocking ones..?



Sexual abuse of words – like the ‘moaning’ of a willow in the wind – will lay even the highest Shakespearean song low, as the clown in his third line tried to tell all the time. Indeed making this cryptic message some kind of crossword. In another context it is allready shown that scanning the partsongs for crossreferences is not really a stiff job. And where the clown demonstrates his capability to sing low, this has to be taken literally: the next lines will demasque O Mistress Mine as downright porn.

But because in that genre it is all the same whether one knocks, sings, comes or dies, Sweet Day has to be placed behind the same decoder, it is no ‘Reduced Virtue’ for nothing. And realising what exactly links them, it is evident what the predicted intercourse between SD and OMM really involves. Bars 23 to 35 of RVW’s first song are on these lines:

A box where sweets compacted lie,
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.

Which, after bedtime-for-small-children, represent the poetic view on:

A room where sweethearts lie on top of each other,
My music reveals your secrets,
           And all must ‘die’.

Calling this bars 23 to 35 is a little devious, I should have mentioned the average instead, because OMM is written in 29 bars. And who stays with them to the bitter end (of the cycle), now hears the sweethearts die on music, that by its dynamic signs on the five notes of ‘coming’ (short crescendo, followed by a long decrescendo) fully explains why George Herbert never bothered about finding a composer to his music:

‘O(oooh)(…) your true love’s coHOhohoming

As in TWS this reverses chronology (have another look at the dates in the prelude now): The ‘mistress’ being absent, the ‘true love’ is in this line evidently telling he can cope without her. But it is only in the second sextet – porn is what porn does – that he invites a young lady to come with him.



And thus we arrive at the dramatic collapse of quality, mentioned in the prelude. True love is the summit of poetry, causing ‘True Love’ to adress his mistress in nothing but first rate lines, even when some of them may hide a suspect double bottom. And his song culminates in this marvellous statement:

Journeys end in lovers meeting

The deeper meaning may be rather sensed than understood, but there is no doubt Shakespeare in just five words touches the heart of all what really matters in life. But then in sharp contrast the next triplet, adressed to the other lady, proposes a one-night stand under the thinnest of covers:

What is love? ‘t is not hereafter;
What is love? it will not outlive this encounter,

Present mirth hath present laughter;
Like a laugh will not outlive a pleasant mood,

What’s to come is still unsure.
What comes after this, you’ll find out soon enough.

And in the final triplet even this transparant veil of imagery is bluntly torn away. Look as carefully as you like, these lines have nothing to do with poetry. Rhyme and meter are perfect, yet no word adds anything to the bare truth it spells out:

In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me sweet-and-twenty,

 Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

The choice of words may soften the impact a little, but the message for the young lady, who is not even adressed by name, is clear:

Delay adds nothing to it:
Therefore kiss me nice young thing,

Youth must be consumated fresh.

I can be wrong of course, but I always thought that true love gets enriched by postponing things. And, as if this opposing opinion is not stated bluntly enough already, the final line allows this interpretation as well:

You can’t stay young for ever.

Which suggests ‘youth’ to represent that inexperience in adult matters, which is spelled out as ‘virginity’. Making the triplet to sound like some kind of encouragement to an apprentice girl in a brothel. It is just a personal interpretation, so think twice before deriving your opinion on ‘True Love’ from it, but the initial rephrasing already betrays him to sing a very low part indeed. His tune is not uncommon, is a traditional even, but still, he would not like some musician to write it down in order to preserve this piece of cultural heritage for future generations. Making it a real embarrassment to hear a renowned composer proclaim:

My music shows ye have your closes

And what is even worse; all words of SD are carefully chosen to make the Part Songs a coherent story dealing with lack of virtue. Hís lack of virtue to be precise: The chapter Two short pieces for children demonstrates which way the outer pair become one, when linked by music that exactly reveals the kind of intercourse between them. And this, again, is to be taken literally. ‘To become one’ is the poetic phrasing of       CENSORED

It is even under today’s liberal vice laws not recommendable to proceed this line of reasoning any further in public cyberspace. A setback providing me with a marvellous opportunity to set you another challenge (see postlude). Meanwhile something tells me that this tuning in by SD with OMM’s music, to be rather a-typical to the works of a reverend minister of the Gospel, who during his life time, was known in his parish as ‘Holy Mr. Herbert’. The words ‘my music’ on the other hand, are not really a-typical to a composer. Which leads irresistably to the notion that unreliable datings have not necessarily be restricted to the music of these songs only. And this incorrect line of reasoning (later inquiries into the origins of SD proved it to be a genuine Herbert), answers the question correctly which I have untill now carefully avoided:


Sweet Day supplies in its ambiguity all information needed for a good explanation, but only in entanglement with OMM; three quatrains are no reversion of four triplets for nothing. So it is time to turn two verses upside down again. And to notice that a mistress in late Victorian time used to be ‘the other woman’:

Virtue Reduced

Sweet season of love, full of sweet days and girls,
A season overcrowded with sweethearts,
My music shows your have your secrets;
——-And all must ‘die’.

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
Uniting high and low (in an impossible love-song).
The ‘dew’ (only) will weep your fall (into sin) tonight,
——-For you must ‘die’.

These two verses, featuring love in an unforced order, preceed a statement with a sharp contrasting final word: ‘to live’ against ‘to die’. This final word is combined with ‘chiefly’; a little odd to express eternal life, but very to the point in discussing people whose private affairs certainly do matter. This is a limited field, the more as, according to SD anyway, the person it accuses must be elderly – the calm and bright day being cool indicates a late season of life – and ranking high in two very different worlds. But this authority does not allow him to exercise power on society at will. He seems to be only other people’s ‘bridle of both earth (read: state) and sky (read: heaven, meaning: church)’.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul
has the strength to resist temptation.
And even when everybody blackens himself,
——-Lives in a way that befits a ruler.

Therefore it is very likely that ‘THREE ELIZABETHAN PART SONGS’ were as a cycle first performed somewhere in the years 1901-1910; in honour of King Edward VII of England.

Klaas Alberts
21 March 1991

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A challenge to the reader

For some reason OMM echoes in the Dutch translation of Twelfth-Night by Gerrit Komrij (1943-2012) the words: ‘all must die.’ Komrij’s translation also includes some wordplay on OMM’s later title, which is Carpe Diem.

Mijn lief, waar ben je? Draal niet langer.  My love, where are you? Tarry no longer.
Toef bij je trouwe minnezanger,                   Dwell with your faithfull love-singer,
—–Hoor zijn zucht, zijn luid geraas.            —–Hear his sigh, his loud din.
Vlinder, wil nu niet meer zwerven:             Butterfly, now don’t want to wander anymore,
Wat zich niet versmelt moet sterven,           What does not fuse itself must die,
—–Dat weet zelfs de grootste dwaas.          —–This even knows the greatest fool.
Liefde is niet iets voor morgen,                     Love is not something for tomorrow,
Tijd komt er genoeg voor zorgen:                 Plenty time will come for worries:
—–Nu is nu, dus pluk de dag,                      ——Now is now, so pick the day, 
Wie zal straks de tranen tellen?                    Who will presently count the tears?
Kus me, want de jeugd gaat snel en             Kiss me, for the youth goes quickly and
—–Daarom, kus me, engel: lach.                ——Therefore, kiss me, angel : laugh.

A butterfly is definitely not the kind of mistress to expect a monogamous attitude from. In consequence two lines in the second verse are pointing straight at her fate of ending up singing the Song of Willow. According to line six Komrij also noticed Shakespeare’s habit to reverse things, and the funny grammar of line 3 is relocated to line 5. If ‘versmelt’ (‘fuse’) is used in the usual meaning as ‘becoming one’, which equals ‘to die’, Komrij appears in this same line to contradict himself. Which happens to correspond remarkably well with Shakespeare in the Song of Willow – a scene also translated by Komrij – and with RVW in Sweet Day (see Part One), so Komrij did not insert some pure nonsense. And it is a nice little challenge to make sense of it.

In this attempt the answer of Part One’s challenge will prove very usefull: the precise nature of the love affair as reflected by OMM’s structure. This will not only remove the contradiction from Komrij’s fifth line, but also the contrast from Shakespeare’s third. If you are still working on that riddle, try to solve it the other way round. Different as they are, both lines are describing the very same thing that is reflected by the structure. There is no need to consult me to compare notes. By the time you’ll drop from your chair, you’ll know you have cracked the nut.

With his fifth line Gerrit Komrij puts on the record that he had gone all the way a long time before us. And, what is more, he has managed with superior ease to incorperate this hidden layer in his translation. At which point in my analysis my own clumsy attempts to that result went straight into the paper bin. But then; Gerrit Komrij is in The Netherlands not primarly acknowledged as a first rate translator, he principally is the country’s first ever appointed Poet Laureate.

Judged by the contents of my paper bin, it is no pleasure to have the results of one’s analysis confirmed by an authority. And the results themselves were no better. To discover the sexual innuendo in O Mistress Mine was a real disappointment for this amateur songtext translator, who had been looking forward to this opportunity to submerge himself in some first rate poetry. But in the next and final part of this article we will find out there is much more to discover, and the conclusion must be that OMM is a masterpiece by all standards. Porn included.

As we have seen it is possible to interprete SD the same way as OMM, turning it into an exact copy of her. And The Willow Song brings no improvement:

The ‘dew’ will weep your fall tonight‘

Apparently it is possible to weep in company, which makes this song is as ambiguous as the others, for there is no word on the poor soul weeping in so……        CENSORED

It is a little premature to interrupt the line of reasoning already at this early stage, but it will lead up to the same break as at the first occasion anyway. Yet, this second part of “The Art of Ralph Vaughan Willams” has widened the visible crack in this marvellous crossword enough to allow the real enthousiast a reconstruction of all deleted information. This is no crossword contest, so there will be no reward. Except, of course, the perpetual banishment of Desdemona from school’s dull poetry lessons.

The first piece of vital information on her song is to be found in Book of Genesis (a photographic precise illustration of the verse in question can be consulted instead), because in matters of love, symbolism is not restricted to willows. The next tip of the veil is lifted by a remark at the centre of this second part. And to appreciate its value it is paramount to know that The Song of Willow has the poor soul ‘singing’  in the 1623 folio edition, where The Willow Song makes her ‘sighing’.

Meanwhile, this song’s deleted four lines in reversed chronology are not just replaced by OMM, its first line answers the replacement’s opening question as well. Good reason to re-arrange the order of songs at the first opportunity, which comes down on connecting OMM directly to SD. Their go-between being moved out of the way as  recorded on CD by the Holst Singers (CDA 66777). A demonstration of textexpression which makes one nearly wonder what kind of reasoning made this release to carry a number that refers to the total of lines in the Part Songs.

Who fully understands in what peril the pour soul is submerged, is free to apply this knowledge on Part Two’s censored paragraph , and to reconstruct its deleted lines. This will drag Sweet Day and O Mistress Mine together to the new fathomed (wil)low level, if not deeper down. The porn-movie then emerging from their lines is confirmed by every detail in OMM’s structure. As preluded: the authors were centuries ahead of their time. The third and final chapter of this love-story will therefore be titled:

Revolutionary Art

At the time of my research the only traced CD-recording of ‘Three Elizabethan Part Songs’ was part of the 1995 Hyperion release CDA 66777:

Vaughan Williams
Over hill, over dale.
Holst Singers; Stephen Layton, conductor.

In 2007 Move Records followed suit with
MD3306: Laughing
Choir of Ormond College; Douglas Lawrence, conductor.