Saturday, 28 February 2009

Now, oh now I needs must part

Every time I hear one of the songs of John Dowland pop up on my MP3 player, I have the urge to post about him here, just to share the melancholy pleasure with you all. There’s not usually much pleasure in witnessing someone wallow in sorrow, but when it’s done with such poetry as Dowland deploys, it can be a pure joy.

Not that all texts associated with Dowland are definitively attributed to him. Dowland (whose name I insist rhymes with ‘lowland’ although I seem to be in the minority) lived from 1562 to 1626. He served the English ambassador to the French court, then at the Danish court, after which he came back to England in 1606 to become a lutenist at the court of James I (this is all from Wikipedia, but the facts are not in dispute).

He was very popular in his day, for solo songs with lute accompaniment as well as for part-songs, lute works and compositions for consort, or instrumental ensemble. His style was very much melancholic, after the fashion of the day. That fashion, and indeed the whole concept of melancholy, is the subject of a post of its own.

The lyric I’ve chosen encapsulates Dowland’s brand of melancholy well, allowing me to overlook the fact that it may not be his, or may only be partly his, being based on an unknown or anonymous lyricist. I’ve lifted the text from the excellent website maintained by Emily Erutz, where you can see it in its entirety. I’m going to be breaking it up with my own interruptions.

The song takes the form of three sections, each of two verses and a refrain:

Now, oh now I needs must part

Now, oh now I needs must part,
Parting though I absent mourn.
Absence can no joy impart:
Joy once fled cannot return.

The language of melancholy is the language of death, or its metaphor exile. While it’s probable that Dowland’s service took him abroad and away from lady-loves, it’s not really necessary to an understanding of the words to find their biographical referent. To the Lover, as we all know, any separation from the Beloved is an exile, and exile is death.

Also worth noting: on the emotional spectrum of melancholy, there are only two positions: Despair and Joy. A person presenting the signs of melancholy these days would certainly be diagnosed as depressive, and if not, as bipolar. The difference being that for the depressive melancholic, joy exists only in theory.

While I live I needs must love,
Love lives not when Hope is gone.
Now at last Despair doth prove,
Love divided loveth none.

The train of thought goes thus, though it is written in reverse: The Lover is in Despair, because Hope is gone, which has banished Love, and since he must love to live, he needs must part. The parting seems to be a real death, according to that calculus. But really, between a real and a melancholic death, there’s no effective difference.

The urge to capitalise all nouns when writing about this material is, as you can see, hard to resist.

Sad despair doth drive me hence;
This despair unkindness sends.
If that parting be offence,
It is she which then offends.

Unkindness is another vital concept in the melancholy lexicon. It essentially means “failure to requite love”. He’s saying here: I’m going (dying) because she wouldn’t love me back, and if my death bothers you, blame her. That’s quite astonishing to our ears, being somewhere between adolescent and vindictive. I suppose it’s the equivalent of killing himself to teach her a lesson. It may seem strange to find such a raw sentiment referred to by a term as innocuous as “unkindness”. I’ll make a note about kindness later in this post, and point out some rather less innocuous alternatives used.

In the second section, he addresses the Beloved directly:

Dear when I from thee am gone,
Gone are all my joys at once,
I lov'd thee and thee alone,
In whose love I joyed once.

And although your sight I leave,
Sight wherein my joys do lie,
Till that death doth sense bereave,
Never shall affection die.

He’s now making a distinction between being ‘gone’ and death, since presumably she knows he’s not dying, but going back to Copenhagen or wherever his duties take him. This is a fairly straightforward Lover’s declaration: I won’t have any fun while I’m away from you; but I’ll keep on loving you all the same.

He does make it plain, here, that she loved him once, and she may well still do. Perhaps her ‘unkindness’ is in letting him leave.

Sad despair doth drive me hence;
This despair unkindness sends.
If that parting be offence,
It is she which then offends.

In the last section he reminds us (and the Beloved) that parting and death could turn out to be the same thing, finally. This idea, though universal, must have been more weighty in Elizabethan times when a journey to a distant place involved more dangers than now, and in many cases was assumed to be for good. The lovers in Ae Fond Kiss are separated by a sea journey, but it’s taken as read that she is leaving forever. People didn’t just go off to the West Indies and then come back some time later in those days (and that was more than a century and a half after Dowland):

Dear, if I do not return,
Love and I shall die together.
For my absence never mourn
Whom you might have joyed ever;

The last two lines are almost humorous: Don’t cry for me, though it’s all your fault and I might have been so happy. I understand that laughter might be an entirely modern response, however.

Part we must though now I die,
Die I do to part with you.
Him despair doth cause to lie
Who both liv'd and dieth true.

So it’s plain that he’s dying because he’s parting. He was true in life and he’s being true in death, although he’s not actually dying. Despair has made him say so.

Sad despair doth drive me hence;
This despair unkindness sends.
If that parting be offence,
It is she which then offends.


ETA: Here's one of the many videos of performances of this song available on YouTube. Most are pretty dismal either in sound or quality. This one has Julian Bream on the lute, although the singer sadly does nothing for me.

A word about unkindness:

The quotation that springs immediately to mind from around the period of Dowland's work comes from Shakespeare, in Hamlet, Act I scene 2.

But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son—
A little more than kin, and less than kind.
How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Not so, my lord, I am too much in the sun.

Where Hamlet is not only punning on kin and kind but also using the word in a way that means rather more than it would today.

According to the Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearian and Stuart Literature (link: highly recommended), 'kindness' is often used a euphemism for sexual favours, with kind woman a euphemism for 'whore'. That seems to fit better with Dowland's repeated use of the word, since sexual favours are precisely what the Beloved is withholding.

The idea that unkindness means more to him than it does to us is reinforced when we see what else he accuses her of.

O ruthless rigour harder than the rocks,
That both the shepherd kills and his poor flocks.
Burst forth, my tears
Laura, redeem the soul that dies
By fury of thy murd'ring eyes,

Rest awhile, you cruel cares

If you seek to spill me,
Come kiss me, sweet, and kill me.
So shall your heart be eased

Lady, if you so spite me
And so on ...

In the next post I'll be talking about melancholy in general, and the sudden surge of the sentiment across Europe at around the time Dowland was working.