We closed a production of Twelfth Night last night. And today its excellent songs linger in its wake: O Mistress Mine, Come Away Death, and The Wind and the Rain. When we talk about Shakespeare, we usually talk about his plays and poems. But his lyrics are rarely discussed.
Shakespeare was an excellent lyricist. That might seem like a given, since he was such a good poet, but in Shakespeare’s time, as in ours, the poem and the song were not the same thing. Great lyricists are often middling poets and great poets middling lyricists.
In times like ours and Shakespeare’s, to be both a poet and a lyricist, one must understand that a poem is the voice against silence and the lyric is the voice against percussion and/or tone. You choose different words when you are placing the voice against silence––the solitary voice is the music. The words have to work in a different way than they do when you place them against percussion or tone.
And while it is true that specific music affects word choice, it’s also true that the fact that there is music at all affects word choice. So Shakespeare’s songs continue to work even though they are given different music for different productions.
Come Away Death
Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown:
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there!