The period surrounding the late 16th and Early 17th century England gave birth to an era, referred to musically and socially as Elizabethan Melancholy. Melancholia as an area of creative inspiration, was a generally unexplored and new realm so it is little surprise that this new expression of deep sadness, lament and woe peaked in popularity at the time. There was something deeply romantic and profound about these many men, who spoke of their heartbreak and sorrow with romance and conviction. According to Lawrence Babb (The Elizabethan Malady) “Melancholy was very much in vogue in the England of Elizabeth and the early Stuarts, especially among the intellectuals and would-be intellectuals”.
One of the many renowned practitioners to emerge at that time was elusive yet timeless Lutenist and Poet, John Dowland- who survives as one of the defining bard’s of the era. Although having a relatively shrouded historic past, his work and his contribution to both music and poetry have not lain unforgotten. The Dowland we know through his work, was a man who not only suffers deeply mentally, but dedicates his existence to trawling the darkest regions of his life and mind, for the sake of his art. He coined the motto: Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens: “Always Dowland, Always Doleful”.
Self punishment, heartbreak, love for darkness, death and the beauty of the night are all staple themes within Dowlands work. Everything from the complexities in his compositions; the diminishing between contrasting time signature & scalic melodies all help to convey a sense of instability, and progression of thought patterns. More importantly it demonstrates his desire to make beautiful, notions and feelings that which would normally be discarded or classed as lesser. His words are often understated and to the point, whilst his music is heavily ornamented and a demonstration of typical styles of that time. He, on a number of occasions welcomes sorrow (” Come Sorrow; come her eyes that sings…”) in a way that suggests “it” exists to him as this bittersweet, ruthless, female entity which is not only his muse, but a presence which he cannot live without. What often suppresses criticisms of him being no more than a pathetic depressive, is his ability to blur the lines between narrative and thought, in a way that is painfully honest: gripping as well as shocking by his choice of dramatic speech and notions. Sympathy often merges with curiostity; we feel sorry for the man presented to us, but nevertheless feel compelled to hear more.
- 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 abused if thy sight be dim.
- Cold love is like to words written on sand,
- or to bubbles which on the water swim.
- Wilt thou be thus abused still,
- seeing that she will right thee never?
- if thou canst not overcome her will,
- thy love will be thus fruitless ever.
Was I so base, that I might not aspire
Unto those high joys which she holds from me?
As they are high, so high is my desire:
If she this deny what can granted be?
If she will yield to that which reason is,
It is reasons will that love should be just.
Dear make me happy still by granting this,
Or cut off delays if that I die must.
Better a thousand times to die,
then for to live thus still tormented:
Dear but remember it was I
Who for thy sake did die contented.
Can She Excuse My Wrongs? – The First Book of Ayres
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