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ON THE SONGS FROM THE PLAYS OF SHAKESPEARE
RIEL, who is the essential sprite of song,
has often been attempted, if never entirely captured, in picture ; and the
same may be said of SHAKESPEARE's Songs. They lure every generation in turn to give them a pictorial and musical setting, after its own fashion. Fashions change ; the charm of these Songs, and their lyric fascination, are constant. The new presentment may not be, is very unlikely to be, the final and perfect one. It is pretty certain to be very unlike Shakespeare's idea, , conceived in Elizabethan terms of music or colour, of his own Songs set to a lyric or pictorial accompaniment.
Still, if it is good in its kind, the setting serves to make us turn to the original Songs with a new sense of their delightfulness; and that is enough.
The wonderful thing about the Songs is, that separated from their context in the plays—where their extreme felicity, dramatically considered, made one dwell mainly upon their stage merit—they should still strike one as so perfect in themselves. This sets aside the cavil of the Scottish critic who maintained that SHAKESPEARE's Songs would not bear mention in the same breath with Burns-save for the lustre of their dramatic framework. Better to consider how both wrote songs so inimitably, and both purely as song-writers, not as lyric poets in our later sense. As for Shakespeare, we may be sure that, though the names of his tunes are not given, he had a tune in his head for every song he wrote. The ballads heard at Stratford fairs, or the songs caught from the
mouths of “the beggar-men of Chepe," or the folktunes sung by some Warwickshire Autolycus, served him well. Tunes like Lady Greensleeves," “Crimson Velvet,” “ Light o' Love," “ Three Merry Boys," and “The Bailiff's Daughter," and the familiar melodies of many a carol, and many an old country dance and fiddler's jig, waited to prompt his fancy at the exigent moment. The Duke in “Twelfth Night” may show you how good a prompter Shakespeare's memory was in these things, when he calls again for “the song we had last night," a song which happens to be one of the most tender and finely cadenced of them all, “Come away, come away, Death !” The little prelude and commentary the Duke offers upon it is in the true connoisseur's view, idiomatic as the lines that follow :
“ Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain :
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones,
Those plays in which Shakespeare makes the most use of the lyric leaven, using it not only for songs, but for passages of a sort of free recitative, or again of an unusual overflow of rhyme, such as “ Love's Labour's Lost," “ The Midsummer Night's Dream,” and “The Tempest,” are divided in point of time by such long intervals that the critic who would base any theory upon the chronology of the songs would be bold indeed. In any case, the reader here, looking at them through the agreeably uncritical medium of delightful illustration, would be likely to resent any attempt to bring the rules of the great Shakespearean critics into the question. Other poets than he, when
the ebullience and heat of youth, and all its gay or sorrowful impulsiveness, were gone, may have lost their lyric grace and power. Shakespeare remembered his tune, whether of last night, or thirty years ago, and wrote his song, whether to fit the earthly humours of a grave-digger or the airy spirit of an Ariel, in just as well and beseeming a vein apparently at the last as at the first. The rhymer in him may a little have decayed ; the lyric poet and the song-writer never—50 far at least as we can judge.
For Ariel, the last consummate creature of his lyric imagination, comes at the last. He is the spirit of all the airy harmonies and all the fugitive half-recollected tunes, one has ever heard or dreamt. Everything he utters has something of the inevitable lyric essence in it. “I drink the air before me” is his promise of good speed. The same sense of airy movement, and