Literature

A Short Analysis of the Shakespeare Song ‘When Daisies Pied’

‘When Daisies Pied and Violets Blue’ is a song from Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost. Although it’s easy, because this is a song, to dismiss its meaning as frivolous or the words as ‘nonsense’, it’s worth stopping to analyse the lyrics of the song and their place in the play as a whole. Here’s the text of ‘When Daisies Pied and Violets Blue’ followed by a few words of comment and analysis.

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he:
‘Cuckoo;
Cuckoo, cuckoo!’ O, word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
And merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
‘Cuckoo;
Cuckoo, cuckoo!’ O, word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
‘Tu-whit, tu-whoo!’—a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow,

And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
‘Tu-whit, tu-whoo!’—a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

‘When Daisies Pied and Violets Blue’ is a song from one of Shakespeare’s less famous plays, the comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost; in fact, the song concludes the play. In the play, the song is sung by ‘Ver’ and ‘Hiems’, presumably alter egos of Holofernes and Nathaniel, two of the ‘learned men’ from Love’s Labour’s Lost. This would make sense, since Holofernes had been accused earlier in the play (in Act 5 Scene 1) of being cuckolded. And although it begins as an apparently upbeat song about the flowers in springtime (‘daisies pied’ meaning, of course, daisies of lots of different colours: see Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty’ for the definitive poetic statement about ‘pied’ or multicoloured things), the song is actually about wives cheating on their husbands. The reference to the cuckoo mocking married men is the clue here: ‘cuckoo’ being a reminder of ‘cuckold’, and an allusion to the cuckoo’s trick of laying its eggs in another bird’s nest, thus suggesting someone who has usurped another, or taken their place in the ‘nest’ (bed?).

There are a number of even subtler clues, bits of wordplay hidden within the lyrics to the song: ‘lady-smocks’ are another term for cuckoo-flowers, thus chiming with the cuckoo-cuckold connections being made elsewhere in that opening verse; but there’s also a faint pun, as H. R. Woudhuysen points out in his notes to the Arden edition of the play, “Love’s Labours Lost” (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare), on ‘ladies’ mocks’, i.e. women mocking men by cheating on them behind their backs.

From this opening verse, ripe with suggestions of unfaithfulness, we move to some further references to the natural world which need deciphering and analysing: larks, for instance, are ‘ploughmen’s clocks’ because the lark, in rising early and singing its dawn song, wakes the ploughman early in the morning ready for his work, like a natural alarm clock. The reference to ‘turtles’ that ‘tread’ is not a nod to the amphibian but to another bird, the turtle-dove (this is also true of the ‘turtle’ in Shakespeare’s poem ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’). ‘Tread’, however, is perhaps not as innocent as it first seems, since it had the alternative meaning of ‘copulate’ or ‘mate with’, and turtle-doves were associated with love – although, somewhat ironically given the rest of the song, with enduring love, or mating for life.

After these first two verses, we move from springtime to winter in the third and fourth verses of ‘When Daisies Pied’. Dick the shepherd (‘Dick’, like Tom, was a generic name for a lad or young man) is blowing on his fingernails to warm himself during the cold weather, and another man, Tom, is bringing in firewood to keep the house warm. Birds return towards the end of the penultimate stanza, but this time with the ‘staring owl’ which says ‘Tu-whit, tu-whoo!’ (actually an impossibility, since strictly speaking it would take two owls, one male and one female, to make these two different noises). Woudhuysen draws our attention to another hidden meaning: ‘Tu-whit’ may here be a pun on ‘to it’, meaning ‘to have sex’, with ‘Tu-whoo’ summoning ‘to who?’, of course. The refrain which concludes both this and the final verse, ‘While greasy Joan doth keel the pot’, refers to a lower-class woman (Joan, like Dick and Tom, being a common name among lower-class people at the time of the play), covered in grease, ‘keeling’ or cooling a pot, probably by stirring it to prevent it from boiling over. It’s winter, after all: Joan is presumably cooking Dick and Tom a warming stew or soup…

In the final verse, winter continues unabated: ‘parson’s saw’ refers not to the implement but to a sermon or ‘saw’ given by the priest; Marian is another generic woman, like Joan; ‘roasted crabs’ refers to apples (crab-apples) being cooked rather than the crustacean. We end with the same words that had concluded the third verse.

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 ‘When Daisies Pied and Violets Blue’ being sung here.

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