‘Take, Oh Take Those Lips Away’ is a song from Shakespeare’s ‘problem play’, Measure for Measure. It’s not as famous as some of the Bard’s other songs, but it’s been praised and singled out as among the best of them, notably by the poet A. E. Housman. Here’s the text of ‘Take, Oh Take Those Lips Away’ followed by some words of comment and analysis.
Take, oh take those lips away,
That so sweetly were forsworn,
And those eyes: the break of day,
Lights that do mislead the Morn;
But my kisses bring again, bring again,
Seals of love, but sealed in vain, sealed in vain.
‘Take, oh take those lips away, / That so sweetly were forsworn, / And those eyes: the break of day, / Lights that do mislead the Morn’. In his 1933 Leslie Stephen Lecture ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, A. E. Housman quoted these lines and called them ‘nonsense’ but ‘ravishing poetry’; he added that this and another of Shakespeare’s songs were ‘the very summits of lyrical achievement’.
This song is from Measure for Measure, the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to be set in Vienna, and is sung by a boy to Mariana, the woman whom Angelo promised to marry before abandoning her, reneging on his promise. The tone, therefore, is bittersweet, and slightly more on the melancholy side.
More than many other songs that appear in Shakespeare’s plays, then, ‘Take, Oh Take Those Lips Away’ fits with the character in the play to whom it relates, on both an emotional and thematic level. In summary, the singer asks a false beloved to go away from them and leave off trying to kiss them with their lips – because the lips with which they would kiss are also the ones they used to perjure themselves (hence why the lips were ‘forsworn’).
The false lover’s eyes, meanwhile, are as bright as the dawn (‘the break of day’), but they are false lights, that lead the very morning astray (‘mislead’ meaning ‘to lead astray’ here). These two lines are harder to analyse, but one possible interpretation is that the singer is saying that the lover’s eyes seemed to promise the ‘dawn’ of a new relationship (Angelo vowing to marry Mariana), but this was a false impression since he broke off the engagement (giving a secondary and darker meaning to ‘break of day’: i.e. shattering the bright hopes Mariana had for her marriage).
The final couplet seems to go against the first four lines: now the singer wants the beloved to come and kiss them again. Even though those kisses are ‘sealed in vain’ (i.e. the promises uttered by those lips mean nothing), the kisses are nevertheless ‘Seals of love’. One can love truly, even if one does not intend to marry: a man may love a woman but not wish to pledge himself to her, but instead pay court to her in other ways (which is indeed what happens thanks to the ‘bed trick’ in the play: indeed, this song chimes with one of the overarching themes of Measure for Measure, which is the ‘sin’ of fornication or sex outside marriage, which Claudio has been accused of, and for which crime Angelo has sentenced him to die).
So, perhaps this song is not such nonsense as Housman thought it to be. But we agree that it is ravishing poetry.
You can listen to ‘Take, Oh Take Those Lips Away’ being sung here.