A&S Journey

A&S Journey: Can she excuse my wrongs? Part 2: Lyrics

This is the second of a planned series of 52 weekly posts on my experience researching Arts & Sciences topics, particularly Elizabethan music and culture. Last week began the examination of John Dowland’s “Can she excuse my wrongs?” We will be diving into the musical exploration of the piece next week, leading up to my first public performance of the lute accompaniment in 2016. But first, an examination of the song’s lyrics, which served as a first window into aspects of Elizabethan culture that warranted further study.

The lyrics of “Can she excuse my wrongs?” exemplify a type of love song that dominates Elizabethan secular lyrics: the first-person lament of an archetypal Petrarchan Lover. Petrarch’s 14th century Italian sonnets swoon with lovesickness, doting on an idealized woman who refuses to return the (male) lover’s affections. The lover rhapsodizes over the power that this woman and her beauty have over him, and this conception of love was highly popular in Elizabethan England (as we shall explore repeatedly in the coming weeks). Romeo, in the first scene of Romeo and Juliet, is initially modeled after a Petrarchan lover to the point of satire, mooning away for love of Rosaline, a girl the audience never meets, and who will be promptly forgotten with the first glimpse of Juliet.

“Can she excuse my wrongs” is certainly a song in the Petrarchan mode, but it also brings into sharp focus certain features of the Elizabethan love song of longing that are worth noting. I am only passingly familiar with Petrarch, but the samples of his sonnets I read seemed to focus on the unattainability of the desired woman and the groveling unworthiness of the lover. “Can she excuse” and many of its Elizabethan companions, on the other hand, have a steady undercurrent of resentment and, for lack of a better way to put it, frustrated sexual entitlement. (Note that the first line of the song, out of context, can be confusing: is the persona asking for the woman he loves to excuse his faults of character? No, it becomes very clear that the “wrongs” are his insomuch is he is their recipient, as the woman in the piece is held responsible for all of his unhappiness unerringly therafter:)

Can she excuse my wrongs with Virtue’s cloak?
Shall I call her good when she proves unkind?
Are those clear fires which vanish into smoke?
Must I praise the leaves where no fruit I find?

No, no, where shadows do for bodies stand
Thou may’st be abus’d if thy sight be dimmed
Cold love is like to words written on sand
Or to bubbles which on the water swim

The speaker in the verses is accusing the woman he claims to love, of failing to fulfill his expectations of love: he has gotten smoke but not fire, leaves but not fruit, shadows instead of bodies.

As I learned the song, I had to acknowledge to Maistre Lucien that I found the sexual connotation and the air of entitlement troubling. Lucien’s invitation to me was to embrace the mindset in the interest of performance–not to internalize it by any means, but to be able to take on the lover’s persona, and sit in the historical context in which the song is set, with understanding, or perhaps to acknowledge its ludicrousness playfully or satirically. To paraphrase Lucien’s synopsis: “I love you! Can’t you see I’m sick with love for you! How can you torture me like this when I love you! (Please take off your clothes.)”

The lyrics are intriguing, and (as mentioned in the previous entry) the anger and passion of the “scorned” lover are a powerful emotion to play. And yet:

Wilt thou be thus abused still
Seeing that she will right thee never?
If thou cans’t not o’ercome her will
Thy love will be thus fruitless ever

And further:

If she will yield to that which Reason is
It is Reason’s will that Love should be just
Dear, make me happy still by granting this
Or cut off delays if that I die must

The palpable sense of entitlement was disturbing, then as it is now. “O’ercome her will”, “If she will yield to that which Reason is”, indeed? (This discomfort and the suffocating sense of misogyny around Elizabethan writers’ treatment of women would ultimately become its own research topic, as will be examined in future weeks.) There is a chafing sense of this lover being under the power of a woman that feels more than a touch threatening.

Ultimately, of course, there is a context to Elizabethan love songs like this that is buried in plain sight, right in the name of the era. Surely, English men who lived under the unprecedented half-century reign of the unmarried Queen Elizabeth I, may well have chafed at the unfamiliar sense of being under a woman’s power. And perhaps moreso than most of his countrymen, the man considered the most likely author of this song’s lyrics: Robert Devereaux, the second Earl of Essex, whose favor with Elizabeth waxed and waned, and who often found himself on the outs at the English court. His life and his family’s Peerage would come to an end in 1601, four years after Dowland published this song, when he was executed for treason in the wake of a failed coup in London. (After Elizabeth’s death, James I would restored the earldom to Deveraux’s son.)

Dowland did not credit lyricists in his published songbooks, but it was understood that he did not generally write the words to his music, like most English songwriters of the time (with the notable exception of Thomas Campion, whose work will be examined in due course). While Dowland is justly famed for his musical composition, many of the lyrics in his songbooks scan poorly to the written melodies, indicating the words most likely came either before or after the music. (This may be why the confusing phrase “my wrongs” is crammed into the first line, and the source of problematic stresses such as “vanish into smoke” and “written on sand”.)

Essex was considered to be a competent poet, and the lyrics to “Can she excuse” do not appear to be at odds with his style. The primary reason the song is attributed to him, however, is simple: In 1605, four years after Essex’s death, Dowland published a different transcription of the same tune, in his songbook Lachrimae, or Seven Tears (a book of music notation only, without any lyrics), and titled it “The Earl of Essex his Galliard”. Elizabeth had also died at this point, and with James on the throne, dedicating a song to Essex no longer posed political danger for Dowland.

Dowland having associated the tune with Essex directly, then, it is reasonable to examine the lyrics first published in 1597 as a thinly-veiled lament by Essex about the waxing and waning of his Queen’s favor. In retrospect, the closing lines of the song make such a reading irresistable and terrifyingly prophetic:

Dear, make me happy still by granting this
Or cut off delays if that I die must

Better a thousand times to die
Than for to live thus still tormented
Dear, but remember it was I
Who for thy sake did die contented

In this light, the wailing of an Englishman bred to ambition, that his hopes were being dashed by a woman whose power over him he could not escape, is less surprising. For Essex, some 40 years her junior, to make such a public fuss about the affections of his queen would appear to have been in very much in keeping with his impetuous character. His willingness to be ruled by his passions, and make vital decisions in a hasty and reckless manner, were Elizabeth’s chief concern about his fitness for high office, after all, and were in the end his undoing.

A rich and informative text, this, to introduce the student to the Elizabethan love song and its deeper context. Next time, we will take the next step into the study of this song, and attempt to learn to play it for our own Eastern King and Queen: surely, a conceit for a rank novice that Essex himself would have endorsed, smiling.


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