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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Flow My Tears - John Dowland

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their last fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.


The most famous of Dowland's works, this lute song was originally composed as an instrumental work, called Lachrimae pavane in 1596.  It is thought that Dowland himself wrote the lyrics.  The melancholy subject matter was fashionable in the Elizabethan period, and musically the piece affects and air of mourning and grief, established by the chromatic descending bassline from A to E established in the opening bars.  It is likely that you have heard this piece before even if you have never heard of it, because it is one of the most famous pieces in the English language.

However, I want to look at the lyrics more than I do at the music (today, at least).  Despite the age of the lyrics, they're as relevant today as when they were written.  Feeling so awful you that nothing can assuage you is hardly a modern invention.  It's certainly dramatically melancholic, full of bold claims and images.  "Happy, happy they that in Hell feel not the world's despite."  What a claim!  That those in Hell suffer less than those alive because they do not feel the scorn of the world (and of their lover) is quite severe.

It's worth remembering that this sort of melancholy was largely in affectation.  The call in the first stanza, "Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!" is an invocation to cry, to weep, and to look dramatic in the doing of it.  It's desirable to appear this torn up about something, and these songs were enjoyed by courtly audiences who appreciated their imagery and sentiment.  They were not songs for people actively in throes of grief, but more of a fashion accessory for the court.  Still, that does little to take away from the simple and powerful imagery.

Enjoy now, the wonderful Andreas Scholl singing this piece, and imagine yourself part of the courtly audience, and delight in the sweet sadness as people have done for more than four hundred years now.


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