By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun’ is one of the most famous songs from a Shakespeare play, although its context – in the late play Cymbeline – is often forgotten, and is not as well-known, perhaps, to begin with. Here’s the text of ‘Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun’ followed by a few words of comment and analysis.
Taken from one of the ‘problem plays’, Cymbeline, this song is sung over the dead bodies of Cloten and Fidele, the latter of whom (spoiler alert) is actually the heroine Imogen disguised as a boy, and is not really dead; merely drugged.
Nevertheless, at the point in the play where they appear, Act IV Scene 2, the lines effectively say that ‘the good thing about being dead is that you no longer need to fear the hardships of life.’
In summary, the singers of the song, the characters Guiderius and Arviragus, the sons of Cymbeline in the play and half-brothers to Imogen (who is really one of the ‘men’ over whom this dirge is being sung), take it in turns with the first two verses: Guiderius sings the first, and Arviragus the second, with them alternating the lines of the third and fourth verses until they both sing the final couplet together.
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
The meaning of the song is simple: if you’re dead, you need fear no more either the excessive heat of the summer sun, nor the harsh winter cold; you’ve done your duty, and have gone ‘home’ back to the earth which bore you; everyone must die, from the highest-born and the fittest (‘Golden lads and girls’) to the lowest-born and the weakest (‘chimney-sweepers’).
There is, of course, a bit of wordplay in that phrase ‘come to dust’: chimney-sweepers must ‘come to dust’ not only because they will return to dust (‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’, in the words of the burial service from the Book of Common Prayer), but because that’s their job – i.e. they ‘come to dust’ when they go up the chimney to clean the dust out.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
In the second verse, we’re told that another good thing about being dead is that you’re beyond the reach of a tyrant’s rule, you don’t need to worry about feeding and clothing yourself or others, and everything is as pointless and worthless to you as everything else.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
In the third verse, the list of Things The Dead Need Not Concern Themselves With continues: thunder and lightning, people saying bad or untrue things about you behind your back (‘slander’) or telling you off (‘censure rash’). Both the happy and sad times are now behind you when you’re dead.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!
And in the final verse, the tone switches, with the two singers asking that nobody disturb the sleep of the dead: neither exorcists seeking to expel evil demons, nor witches seeking to use demons to raise you from the dead; no ghosts to bother you, and no bad things to befall you.
The critic Hugh Kenner asserted that ‘golden lads’ and ‘chimney-sweepers’, as well as referring to young boys, carried a second meaning: ‘golden lads’ being Warwickshire dialect for yellow dandelions, and ‘chimney-sweepers’ being another regional term for dandelions, which indeed ‘come to dust’ when you blow on them and are left holding nothing but a stalk.
However, this appears to be a myth, although it would make sense that a Warwickshire lad like William Shakespeare, hailing from Stratford-upon-Avon, would have known such terms, if they had been regional dialect words for those flowers.
For the pioneering modernist poet and thinker T. E. Hulme, ‘Golden lads’ is a fine example of what Hulme identified as Shakespeare’s ‘classicism’. Drawing a distinction between the more effusive and emotionally incontinent mode of literary romanticism, and the more steely and reserved mode of classicism, Hulme used these lines from ‘Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun’ as evidence of the Bard’s steely stoicism.
A lesser poet, prone to taking the ‘easy’ romantic route, would have written ‘Golden youths’ rather than the more down-to-earth lads, in order to ramp up the appeal to the emotions the lines call for (and ironically, in doing so, would probably have lessened their effect).
You can listen to ‘Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun’ being sung here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.