Literature

A Short Analysis of the Shakespeare Song ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass’

If one phrase above all others sums up Elizabethan song-making, it’s ‘hey nonny nonny’. There’s plenty of hey-nonny-nonnying going on in the song ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass’ from As You Like It; excitingly, copies of the original sheet music (by Thomas Morley) have survived from the early seventeenth century. Here’s the text of the song ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass’, followed by some words of comment and analysis.

It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green cornfield did pass,
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
Those pretty country folks would lie,
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

This carol they began that hour,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that a life was but a flower
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And therefore take the present time,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
For love is crownèd with the prime
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

The song is a glorious celebration of young love in springtime, so fits with the woodland-set romantic comedy in which it appears. This is a Shakespeare song in the pastoral tradition, celebrating the countryside and presenting an idyllic – indeed, idealised – vision of the rural landscape, as a place for young lovers to frolic, love, and be young.

And spring, as well as being mentioned explicitly in the song, is there in the reference to ‘the green cornfield’ (a field of unripe wheat, which – Juliet Dusinberre observes in her notes to the Arden edition of Shakespeare’s play, “As You Like it” (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare) – would be green between February and early May each year) and ‘the acres of the rye’.

In internally rhyming ‘spring-time’ with ‘ring-time’, Shakespeare’s song draws together love and spring, wooing and the promise of new life: ‘ring-time’ refers to the exchange of rings for marriage betrothals between lovers, a ceremony traditionally associated with May Day – another factor bring spring and courtship together in the song, and in the play more generally. There’s also possibly a pun on the ringing of bells, and perhaps wedding bells. This suggestion is strengthened by the ‘hey ding a ding a ding’ refrain in the song. Although the context implies that this refrain is meant to refer to birdsong, ‘ding’ is just as likely to evoke the peal of bells.

Dusinberre also observes that the song’s own description of itself as a ‘carol’ – traditionally, a song involving both singing and dancing – chimes (as it were) with the Mayday idea, since singing and dancing were both part of May celebrations.

When ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass’ has been sung in As You Like It, Touchstone, the Clown, observes that ‘there was no great matter in the ditty’. But the cultural associations and implications of Shakespeare’s words are often not apparent to us from such a great distance as four centuries, so a few words of textual analysis help to bring these extra senses to the fore again.

You can listen to ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass’ being sung here.

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