Literature

A Short Analysis of the Shakespeare Song ‘Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind’

The same play which gave us one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches – the ‘seven ages of man’ speech beginning ‘All the world’s a stage’ – also gave us one of his most famous songs: ‘Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind’. Indeed, not only do both of these famous passages appear in the same play, As You Like It, but they even appear in the same scene : Act 2 Scene 7 of As You Like It.

Let’s take a closer look at the song ‘Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind’. Before we come to our analysis, though, here are the words to the song.

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

‘Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind’ is a song sung by Amiens, a lord and follower of Duke Senior in As You Like It. In the song, Amiens compares the harshness of the winter wind with the ungratefulness of human beings, finding the latter to be much more unkind.

Let’s go through the song and summarise its meaning, analysing some of its linguistic features:

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;

Juliet Dusinberre, in her notes to the excellent As You Like It: Third Series (The Arden Shakespeare) edition of the play, notes that ‘wind’ would probably have been sung with a long i vowel sound, so it rhymed with ‘unkind’.)

Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.

Indeed, the winter wind, being invisible, is less duplicitous than human ingratitude, which often masks itself behind a friendly, smiling demeanour. (The smile is suggested by the idea of the ‘keen’ tooth of the wind.) The ‘breath’ of the cold winter wind may be harsh and rough (‘rude’) in the way it buffets our faces, but at least it isn’t pretending to be something it’s not.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Although ‘heigh-ho’ can denote a sigh of resignation, it appears to convey joyfulness here, despite the negative mood of the preceding lines of Amiens’ song. This contrast between dispiritedness and jollity is a hallmark of many of Shakespeare’s songs. The reference to the ‘green holly’ fits with the ‘winter wind’: holly is an evergreen plant.

‘Most friendship is feigning’ looks back to ‘man’s ingratitude’ and the idea that humans are two-faced. Most love, too, is foolishness, and not real or ‘true’ love.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:

Amiens continues his use of the imperative mood, commanding the ‘bitter sky’ to freeze: he is saying to the heavens that bring down the snows and hail, ‘bring it on’. Again, even the coldest and bitterest frost in the air could not be as biting as ‘benefits forgot’: that is, people who have lost (or ‘forgot’) the advantages or blessings they have, such as from their friends or lovers. Once again, we’re back to ‘man’s ingratitude’.

Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Although the cold and harsh wind makes the surface of the water on the lakes and rivers ‘warp’ or ripple, it does not sting as much as ‘friend remembered not’. As Dusinberre observes in her notes, the syntax here conveys a clever double meaning: ‘friend remembered not’ is both ‘the act of forgetting one’s friends’ and ‘the friend who is forgotten’. Both of these can be said to ‘sting’: the act itself hurts us as a species, and the individual who is neglected feels the stinging pain of being brushed aside in such a way.

Once again, Amiens concludes this second verse of ‘Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind’ with the same lines as concluded the first, with jollity – there in the very last word of the verse – playing off against the bitter meaning of the song.

Leave a Reply