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Elizabethan Lyrics

These were the “pop songs” of the 16th and 17th centuries. People loved the lyrics and tunes of the latest “hit”, and the musicians and singers were highly esteemed by the public.


Hymns and chorales were sung in the churches, and singing was a popular entertainment at any social get-together. In the streets the ballad singers rendered traditional folk songs or perhaps a musical comment on a recent event. Many of the songs were collected in books of “ayres” (an ayre, or air, is the same as a tune or melody). The first compilation, Songs and Sonnets, was published in 1557 and became the inspiration and reference for many poets and singers / songwriters of the Elizabethan Age.

Shakespeare included songs in many of his plays. This song from Twelfth Night (1602) is one of his most famous and most quoted songs.

If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On (William Shakespeare, 1664-1616)

Renaissance Music
Renaissance Music
Tobacco Advertisement from the 17th century
Tobacco Advertisement from the 17th century

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

Poetry is the language of love both today and in the Elizabethan Age. Thomas Campion’s poem is a beautiful declaration of love for his lady:

There is a Garden in Her Face (Thomas Campion, 1567-1620)

There is a garden in her face,
Where roses and white lilies grow;
A heavenly paradise is that place,
Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.
There cherries grow which none may buy
Till cherry-ripe themselves do cry.

Those cherries fairly do enclose
Of orient pearl a double row,
Which when her lovely laughter shows,
They look like rosebuds filled with snow.
Yet them nor peer nor prince can buy,
Till cherry-ripe themselves do cry.

Her eyes like angels watch them still;
Her brows like bended bows do stand,
Threat’ning with piercing frowns to kill
All that attempt with eye or hand
Those sacred cherries to come nigh,
Till cherry-ripe themselves do cry.

The following two jesting songs praise some familiar human vices.

The Drinking Song (John Fletcher, 1579-1625)

Drink to-day, and drown all sorrow,
You shall perhaps not do it to-morrow.
Best, while you have it, use your breath;
There is no drinking after death.

Wine works the heart up, wakes the wit;
There is no cure ‘gainst age but it.
It helps the headache, cough, and tisic,
And is for all diseases physic.

Then let us swill, boys, for our health;
Who drinks well, loves the commonwealth.
And he that will to bed go sober,
Falls with the leaf still in October.

(“tisic” is short for “phthisic” which was then another name for consumption or tuberculosis, for which alcohol was a good remedy according to Fletcher…)

Tobacco, Tobacco (Tobias Hume, d. 1645)

Tobacco, tobacco, sing sweetly for tobacco!
Tobacco is like love, oh love it;
For you see, I will prove it.
Love maketh lean the fat man’s tumour,
So doth tobacco.
Love still dries up the wanton humour,
So doth tobacco.
Love makes ken sail from shore to shore,
So doth tobacco.
‘Tis fond love often makes men poor,
So doth tobacco.
Love makes men scorn all coward fears,
So doth tobacco.
Love often sets men by the ears,
So doth tobacco.
Tobacco, tobacco,
Sing sweetly for tobacco.
Tobacco is like love, oh love it;
For you see I have proved it.

(The song indicates the popularity of smoking after it was introduced from the American colonies by Sir Walter Raleigh in the early 17th century.)

John Dowland’s poetry is another manifestation of love as the universal poetic theme.

Come Again (John Dowland, 1563-1626)

Come again:
Sweet love doth now invite,
Thy graces that refrain,
To do me due delight,
To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die
With thee again in sweetest sympathy.
To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die
With thee again in sweetest sympathy.

Come again
That I may cease to mourn,
Through thy unkind disdain:
For now left and forlorn,
I sit, I sigh, I weep, I faint, I die
In deadly pain and endless misery.

All the day
The sun that lends me shine,
By frowns do cause med pine;
And feeds me with delay,
Her smiles my springs, that make my joys to grow.
Her frowns the Winters of my woe.
Her smiles my springs, that make my joys to grow.
Her frown the winters of my woe.

All the night
My sleeps are full of dreams,
My eyes are full of streams
My heart takes no delight.

John Dowland was a musician who composed his own songs and played the lute, a common instrument in the Elizabethan Age. The Queen herself played both the lute and the virginal, which was an early sort of keyboard.
John Dowland died nearly 400 years ago. It is an interesting fact that British rock star Sting made an album of Dowland’s songs in 2006 (“Songs from the Labyrinth”), which goes to show that his songs are still appealing material for a contemporary performing artist.


  • How do you think these poems would have been written today? Try and make a transcription into a modern language.
  • Go on the net and find other poems by John Dowland. Choose one you like and read it out loud in class.
  • Check out YouTube for the Sting performance of "Come Again".


The Renaissance