The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VI. The Song-Books and Miscellanies

§ 1. Music and Poetry

IN an earlier chapter of this work was described the revival of English poetry under the influence of Italy and France, and the progress of the school of Wyatt and Surrey to its decay. The impulse was worn out; the chivalric ideal had ceased to be a genuine source of inspiration, and there was need of new ideals, new blood and new literary methods. We have now to consider the later and more national poetry which the labours of Sidney and Spenser called into being.

It is impossible, of course, to name a date as that at which new methods were employed and new themes sung. Before the school of Wyatt and Surrey had fallen into decay, the Elizabethan outburst of song had begun, and the writers to be considered in this chapter will be found to cover a period of nearly thirty years, during which the full chorus sang from sunrise to high noon.

If this was a period, to a great extent, of poets by profession, it was, also, to a degree never since equalled, a period when every man was a poet not only in spirit but in practice. The accomplishment which had belonged to a few courtiers in the days of Henry VIII had spread to every man of education; every one with an emotion to express may be said to have expressed it naturally in poetry. And some of the sweetest lyrics in Elizabethan poetry were the work of men whose very names are to this day unknown. They were passed round in manuscript, to be read aloud or sung to the lute and viol in private houses, and have survived in manuscript collections, in the song-books of the day, or, occasionally, in printed miscellanies. When a song was popular, it was repeated in various publications; take, as an instance, the dialogue, possibly written by Sir Walter Ralegh, between Meliboeus and Faustus, beginning “Shepherd, what’s Love, I pray thee tell?” which appears in The Phoenix Nest (1593), England’s Helicon (1600) and Davison’s Poetical Rapsody (1602) and is set to music in Robert Jones’s Second Book of Songs and Airs (1601).

The poetry now to be considered falls, in the main, into two divisions: there is the lyric of pure joy or grief, and there is the longer, graver, reflective lyric, revealing an attitude towards life which is, perhaps, more characteristically English. Poetry of the former kind is rarer in our language than poetry of the latter, and it is found at its best in the compositions of the days of Elizabeth. For its forms—the pastoral, the sonnet, the canzone and the madrigal—it is still dependent, no doubt, as was the poetry of Wyatt and Surrey, on foreign models; but the models have now been perfectly assimilated. The voice is pure English, and English of its day. The machinery of the Middle Ages—courts of love, allegorical visions and so forth—has passed out of use, and the feeling of the present moment is naturally, simply and sweetly expressed. It would, perhaps, be truer to say that the voice is not so much English as universal. There is so much in it of the paganism which is of the essence of the natural man that it can dispense with the particular. There is practically no reference to events or tendencies of the time. There is no sense of responsibility, no afterthought. To watch its growth is like watching primroses break into bloom, or like listening to the chorus of birds growing fuller in the woods as the dawn grows towards morning; so spontaneous, so much the effect of purely natural causes, does this poetry appear. The imagery, where imagery is employed, is almost always pastoral. We have seen a very early pastoral in Tottel’s Miscellany, and have noticed in Googe the use of pastoral in the conventional classical manner. In the lyrists of the latter age its use is quite unconventional and brings with it no sense of artificiality. “Shepherd,” as we read, means “man,” and “shepherdess” mere “woman”; the use of these words and the talk about flocks, pipes and so forth, do nothing to cloak the sincerity of the outburst of feeling.

The mass of this poetry that has survived remains still unmeasured, though the labours of Arber, Bullen and others have done something to explore and map the large and intricate field. These poems, it must be noticed, were copied again and again for the purpose of singing. The practice of solo and part singing was more general in Elizabeth’s days than in our own. “There is not any music of instruments whatsoever,” wrote William Byrd, “comparable to that which is made of the voices of men.” The lute, the viol and the virginals were in every household for accompaniment, as a piano is to-day, and were put to a better use; and there can be no doubt that music had a great influence on the quantity, and no small influence on the quality, of the lyric poetry which was being produced with no thought, in many cases, beyond that of putting the song (as we saw in the case of The Handefull of pleasant delites) to a tune already known or of having it set to a new one.

“Poetry makes melody, not melody poetry,” wrote Richard Garnett, and he implied that the only thing music can do for poetry is to increase the quantity of it. Certainly, in our own day, we have a terrible example of the amount of “poetry” which “music” can produce; and, in the days of Elizabeth, music was equally fruitful in this way. But a wide difference must be noted. To-day, feeble and slipshod music produces still more feeble and washy poetry; in those days, music that was still in the very salutary “bondage” of a pretty severe formalism co-operated with a lyric poetry of natural and sincere sweetness to produce perfect song.

Elizabethan composers for the voice made use of two distinct styles: the madrigal and the ayre. Of these, the madrigal was a piece of continuous music, not broken into stanzas, but woven from start to finish without break and without repetition. Further, it was written in the “polyphonic” style, in which four, five or six voices sang, at the same time, independent melodies, which had no necessary likeness in pitch or in rhythm. Different words were often sung simultaneously, or the same words to different rhythms, so that if each singer was made to accent his words with the greatest care, the impression on the hearer was general. This accounts, to some extent, for the brevity, directness and simplicity of the madrigal form of poem. The ayre, on the other hand, was composed stanza by stanza, often repeating the same music to different stanzas. The musical idea, whether the ayre were composed for one or for several voices, was generally a single idea, and the parts were made to conform more or less to a single rhythm, which corresponded to the metre of the verse. Writers of ayres, who threw their words into prominence and kept the stanzas entire, necessarily had a much greater effect upon the lyric than madrigalists, especially those who wrote for a single voice with instrumental (usually lute) accompaniment.

It is impossible to determine the shares accurately. The best lyric poetry of the age “sings itself”: it suggests its own tune irresistibly, and is, in a sense, complete without the written music; and there can be no doubt that the demands of increasing variety and range in poetry spurred music on to greater freedom in the effort to cope with it. On the other hand, the freest music of the day was more rigid and more formal than the strictest poetry; and it would not be rash to state that music directly affected the quality of the poetry in two ways: first, by putting a check on all temptation to neglect conciseness of expression and strictness of form; and, secondly, by keeping it simple and sensuous, as lyric poetry should be. The standing danger to which music exposes poetry—that the rhythm of the poetry may be sacrificed to that of the music—is very rarely incurred in the Elizabethan ayres. Those who have had the privilege of reading the book of words of a modern musical comedy will know how the “lyrics” are, of themselves, for the most part, absolutely shapeless and rhythmless. They only take shape when it is supplied by the rhythm or melody of the music; and this is rarely the case. An Elizabethan poet—amateur or professional—writing a lyric to music of his own or another’s had a different task. The tune was, in itself, a little rigid in shape; his lyric could not, therefore, be shapeless. And, conversely, a composer putting a tune to a lyric had before him something with a structure of its own which he could not help respecting. In this connection, Thomas Campion, whose work, as a whole, is considered elsewhere in this volume, is a composer of especial interest. He wrote his words in order to set them himself; his ayres are melodies extending over a single stanza, and the contour of each melody is carefully devised, both in pitch and rhythm, to express the sense, throwing the important words into relief. He takes care, therefore, to bring the important words in each stanza into the same position in the line; and, as in Burns, each stanza corresponds not only in metrical rhythm, but in inner sense-rhythm, to all the rest. At the opposite extreme, as composers have found, stands Tennyson, who can only be set to music on the durch-componirt principle. And, as time went on, not only did the composer come to respect the structure of the lyric more and more, but it became more possible for him to respect it as the lyric became more perfectly shaped.