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The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0118 Sunday, 12 June 2011
Mark Fenton (SHK 22.0115 Thursday, 10 June 2011) speculates that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 107 might be a “missing song (or poem)” about the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, referred to in Henry Chettle’s England’s Mourning Garment. He adds: “In Elizabethan times songs were also considered to mean poems.” I have no opinion on Chettle’s intentions and suppose that the word “song” could plausibly refer to a poem. It’s hard to imagine that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was intended to be sung, though, in fact, John Craton has set it to music for tenor and strings. http://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/The-Love-Song-of-J-Alfred-Prufrock/17472120. For Eliot’s own inspired reading, consult http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXsItbsr4o0.
But it seems to me that for Shakespeare himself the categories of verse and song were quite distinct, with surprisingly little overlap; that his plays (but not his poems) have plenty of songs and song references; that songs only amount to about 2-3% of his play verse; and that they are never, or almost never, written in his normal, verse meter of iambic pentameter (I-5). My sense is that about 70% of Shakespeare’s play lines are verse; about 95% of his play verse lines are (I-5), and maybe half of the rest are songs, 2 percent if you don’t count the witches’ lines in Macbeth as songs, 3 percent if you do. Let’s suppose, conservatively, that you don’t, that you find 986 lines of arguable songs in the plays, and that four of these, at most, are in I-5:
I say “at most” because, though this passage is listed in Tucker Brooke’s The Shakespeare Songs, 1929, and also in the Riverside Shakespeare’s Index to First Lines of Songs and Snatches, it seems to me unlikely that Shakespeare expected it to be sung. It is taken from Pandarus’ raunchy quasi-epilogue to the audience in Troilus and Cressida, helping him manage an otherwise over-abrupt transition from his earlier signature prose, to bawdy verse better suited for winding up the scene and the play. Here is the full context from Scene 10. Pandarus, alone on the stage, assumes the role of a chorus:
Pandarus announces his transition to verse, using the word “verse,” not “song,” comes out with a trial set of four impeccable, suggestive I-5 lines about the humble-bee, sputters through a not-so-impeccable I-6 and an I-4, and finally finishes up the play with nine more lines of lewd patter about prostitutes and venereal disease, all in irreproachable I-5. If I were playing the part, it would seem to me as incongruous to sing, rather than recite, the four humble-bee lines as to sing, rather than recite, the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
Of course, such qualitative judgments should better be left to qualified SHAKSPERians and pros than to outside amateurs like me. On the other hand, even if it is a song, it’s Shakespeare’s only song in I-5. Every other Shakespeare song seems to be in a variety of other meters, mostly I-4 or a mixture of I-4 and I-3. If so, no more than one Shakespeare song line in 200 is I-5.
I would further suppose from skimming Ross Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook, Norton, 2004, that what’s true of Shakespeare’s own songs is also true of the many songs by others that Shakespeare invokes or adapts. Duffin (521-24) lists 218 such “citations” of 183 different songs. Only one of the “citations” is found outside the plays (in The Rape of Lucrece), and only one is in I-5, (Fortune My Foe, Duffin 152-53). Once again, the ratio of I-5 to non-I-5 is about one in 200. Could one infer from these numbers that, with the possible exception of Pandarus’s 29 words quoted above, and Fortune My Foe, neither Shakespeare nor the songwriters he seemed to know regarded I-5 as a suitable meter for songs?
It’s true that several 20th-century composers have set I-5 passages from Shakespeare to music: a handful of Sonnets and famous passages like “Tomorrow and tomorrow” or “How sweet the moonlight.” The composers that come to mind are Kevin Olson, Nils Lindberg, Robert Applebaum, Dominick Argento, Håkan Parkman, Juhani Kumulainen, and Steve Stametz, all born since 1927, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1874-1958, and Frank Martin, 1890-1974. I’m sure there are many more, but these may well be enough for a placeholder. Five of these actually started with a Sonnet, three with the same Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee?” So it’s not true, as some have argued, that I-5 sonnets can’t be set to music. On the other hand, if the ones I know are representative, composers had to wait till the 20thcentury before they could get audiences that would put up with I-5 in music, along with atonality and other 20th-century acquired tastes. Most modern arrangements are still of the non- I-5 passages Shakespeare originally intended to be sung; I sometimes wonder whether these are not only more numerous, but also, Vaughan Williams’ matchless I-5 Serenade to Music (1938) aside, more popular and musically successful than the I-5 ones.
In sum, it looks to me as though Shakespeare loved I-5 for verse, but avoided it almost completely for songs. Would he have been as annoyed with Serenade to Music as Robert Frost was with Randall Thompson’s masterful song-setting of The Pasture? I hope not, but I can’t rule it out. What was so of Shakespeare seems also to have been so of the songwriters he invoked in his plays, and it looks like there is still more than a grain of truth to it among modern composers. The old ones avoided I-5, and even the modern ones still strongly prefer the same non-I-5 song meters that Shakespeare did. Would this impression survive a closer look? Is the same I-5 aversion also to be found with other poets and playwrights who also do song lyrics? If so, are there good reasons for it? I-5 seems like an inevitable default for English verse; why isn’t it inevitable for songs also? Has anyone given this topic a closer look and written it up? If so, I would like to hear more of it.