|Matters of Love
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
29 April 2006
A generation before Sir Thomas Bodley composed
his Life as a sort of apologia, some time around 1576,
a musician and song-writer by name of Thomas Whythorne (the
spelling is a variant on the Somerset name Whitehorn) had the
idea of collecting his poetic works and linking them by a prose
text. In these linking passages he told of his own life and
the circumstances that provoked each of the poems.
The manuscript lay unpublished and undiscovered
until 1955, when it was sold at auction (it is now in the Bodleian
Library in Oxford). Whythorne was known as a composer, and for
many years was thought to be a very bad composer. No one had
tested an ill-informed judgment by Charles Burney in the 18th
century, until Peter Warlock, the composer, printed 12 of his
madrigals in 1925, in a pamphlet called "Thomas Whythorne,
An Unknown Elizabethan Composer".
It turns out, however, that Whythorne has two
interesting claims to priority. His song, "Buy New Broom",
for solo voice and a quartet of viols, is said to be the first
printed example in England of music for voice with instrumental
accompaniment. And the manuscript of his "booke of songs
and sonetts with longe discourses sett with them" constitutes
(at least by some definition) the earliest surviving English
Although as a piece of writing it is unlikely
ever to gain great popularity, it is in many ways a gripping
document. It opens a window on to the poet-songwriter's world,
the daily private life of the tutor-musician, with his anxieties
about his status in the households where he is employed, and
his uncertainties in the matter of love.
Things happen in this account that remind us
of the fictional world of Shakespeare's plays. The author dresses
in a certain way to give an indication of his state of mind,
wearing russet garments to signify hope, "and one time
I did wear hops in my hat also; the which when my mistress espied,
she in a few scoffing words told me that the wearing of hops
did but show that I should hope without that which I hoped for".
This sounds like a scene from the Comedies.
The scoffing widow, one of a series of widows with whom the
author becomes entangled, says,
"If you have any hope in me,
The suds of soap
Shall wash your hope."
The great mystery, to me, about Shakespeare's
sonnets, is why their publication did not give rise to any recorded
offence or scandal in Shakespeare's lifetime. A generation later,
yes, they needed a change in the sex of some of the pronouns,
but at the time they seem to have provoked no adverse comment.
In Whythorne's autobiography we see a man worrying
over whether he will give offence by singing a certain song
to the lute or the virginals. Sometimes, he says, his tale will
be better heard if sung than if read on the page, "because
that the music joined therewith did sometimes draw the mind
of the hearer to be the more attentive to the song."
But he goes on: "Also, if it were not
to be well taken, yet inasmuch as it was sung, there could not
so much hurt be found as had been the case of my writing being
delivered to her to read, for singing of such songs and ditties
was a thing common in those days." So, singing a song that
reflected on his mistress was relatively innocuous (in the period
he was looking back on), but handing her the words written down
might risk her offence.
We are forcefully reminded that poems and song
lyrics which today look rather unspecific could have arisen
out of dangerous, particular circumstances. Leaving a poem for
someone to find, identifying its author, interpreting its message
- issues familiar from Elizabethan drama - were to Whythorne
a part of daily life. He finds a poem left between the strings
of his gittern. He wonders whether it was written by a woman
("of purpose for love") or a man ("in mockage").
It turns out that the author is a young woman, a servant, and
when the story gets out she is dismissed.
Useful proverbs about widows: "He that
wooeth a widow must not carry quick eels in his codpiece."
And: "He who weddeth a widow who hath two children, he
shall be cumbered with three thieves." But these widows
come across as powerful souls. The Autobiography of Thomas
Whythorne was published twice by Oxford, first in 1961 in
the author's phonetic spelling, which makes an unattractive
read, but has full notes. The second modern spelling edition
came out a year later. In both cases the excellent editor is
James M Osborn.