murder by suicide

Dido’s Lament by Nahum Tate (1652 – 1715) makes no exception. If only to produce the negative test result on metaphorical death that the context of the libretto for Purcell’s opera Dido & Aeneas predicts. But this lament appears to be surprisingly erotical for a straightforward suicide note :


Thy hand Belinda, darkness shades me,
On thy Bosom let me rest,
More I would but Death invades me.
Death is now a Welcome Guest,
When I am laid in Earth, may my Wrongs create
No trouble in thy Breast.
Remember me, but ah! forget my Fate.


With drooping Wings ye Cupids come,
And scatter Roses on her Tomb.
Soft and Gentle as her Heart,
Keep here your Watch and never part.

Cupids Dance.

The ‘Oh’ that stands for metaphorical death may not be there, the replacing ‘Ah’ cannot be told apart by its expression in Purcell’s music (‘Oh’ is melismatic by nature). And the metaphor of the Last Lover is evidently strong enough to charge Dido’s parting from Belinda with suggestion. The more because the dance of the cupids was to all likelyhood performed by pupils of the girl’s school that hosted the opera’s original production. This while the roses that these cupids are scattering around can be seen as powerful symbols of metaphorical death. In such a setting Dido’s lament makes a worthy expression of a young lover’s death wish. At least as far as the original audience was concerned : unnatural rather than unilateral. One should almost forget that Dido kills herself because her heart is broken by Aeneas.

Having escaped the burning ruins of Troy, this hero is to become a founding father of the Roman empire, and Carthage is to him just a temporary place of refuge.

Come away, fellow sailors, your anchors be weighing.
Time and tide will admit no delaying.
Take a bouzy short leave of your nymphs on the shore,
And silence their mourning
With vows of returning
But never intending to visit them more.

Act Three ; scene one

Even if it needs Dido’s enemies to remind him of his destiny. The massacre he survived, interestingly, was triggered by a certain Paris, who eloped with another man’s wedded wife. And Nahum Tate therefore knew exactly what he was doing, when he referred to the final scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.

In the famous tragedy’s original 1594 production (faithfully copied by the ‘corrupt’ Q1-edition), the flowers were apparently strewn by a boy soprano. This ‘cupid’ probably was thirteen year old Thomas Belte. 

Klaas Alberts : The Original Romeo & Juliet  a reconstruction of the play’s first night

Once again logic arrives at a simple, single, and irrefutably correct interpretation of a piece of poetry. Even if the touchstone proves its message slightly different from the one of Let down the Bars :

if                                        Death    =   better than              the unilateral lover
and                                    Death    =                                        the ‘Oh’ in ‘love’
then                                  Death    =   still                              worse than Death

Cutting short some increasingly intimate touches, the Last Lover appears, as far as the original audience was concerned, just in time to save Dido – or rather Belinda – from worse. Which softens the impact of her fate with the notion that even the darkest cloud has a silver lining. But dark clouds only feature in a tragedy, and under the fair blue sky of comedy fate can be merciless.

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