Another poem/song aimed at soothing another’s misery. However, this is a bit more grand than Sigh No More, Ladies as it is believed to be addressed to the English nation after the death of Elizabeth I, but could more broadly be understood to be about someone struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one.
The poem tries to coax the subject into calmness and sooth the tears with the thought that the dead person is now at peace and the weeping pointless.
Weep you no more, sad fountains;
What need you flow so fast?
Look how the snowy mountains
Heaven’s sun doth gently waste.
But my sun’s heavenly eyes
View not your weeping,
That now lies sleeping
Softly, now softly lies
Sleep is a reconciling,
A rest that peace begets:
Doth not the sun rise smiling
When fair at even he sets?
Rest you then, rest, sad eyes,
Melt not in weeping,
While she lies sleeping,
Softly, now softly lies
Anonymous (mid-seventeenth century)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
I can’t tell you a great deal about Anonymous for obvious reasons. However, I can tell you that the leading theory seems to be that it was composed by John Dowland who was the royal lute player in the court of James I of England in around 1612.
We can view this as someone coping with the loss of a loved one (death is implied, but you don’t necessarily have to read it that way) or we can link it specifically to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. At the time she was the longest serving English monarch and had an almost flawless reputation as the Virgin Queen and for her rousing speech to spur her navy on against the Spanish:
I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too
When she died many people in the country and particularly at court would be in mourning, but also it is only polite if you’re a performer at a royal court to commemorate and celebrate a long serving monarch, particularly if your new boss (James I) is related to her. This poem/song could be seen as praise as it uses the intensity of emotion to suggest the depth of feelings.
The main theme here is love, but more familial love than romantic love and coping with loss. It depends on how you view the poem (whether you associate it just with death or also just simply absence) to some degree. Their is clearly enormous respect for the person no longer there and this sadness is not tinged with anger or bitterness as we might see in a Wroth poem.
I suppose you could also use it to talk about mortality, but this is not a philosophically linked to the theme as later poems in the collection.
The story of the poem is fairly simple.
The poetic voice, in the opening stanza/verse, is trying to sooth someone who is crying relentlessly by pointing out that it doesn’t help and explaining that the world still needs to go on. Then the chorus is a beautiful reassurance that the lost love is at peace now as death is compared to sleeping.
The second stanza begins by trying to make the mourning soul begin to come to terms with the loss. Sleeping and therefore time is suggested as a healer and the sun is used to demonstrate that sleep helps one recover and come back ‘smiling’. In this stanza the chorus is ever so slightly different, but has pretty much the each same meaning.
Language and techniques
There is a huge amount here and some of it is quite complicated.
The first thing to comment on is the metaphorical comparison between the mourner and ‘sad fountains’. This is fairly obvious, but it shows that the tears and crying is intense and never ending with the following rhetorical question demonstrating that tears seem to be flowing out ‘so quick’. We could link the mourner to the royal court as fountains are a symbol of wealth and power, but this association could also merely reflect the person we are mourning (whether it is Elizabeth I or someone who takes on similar significance due to their role in our lives: a lover, for instance).
The intensity of this emotion is what the singer wants to combat, they are not telling the mourner to forget their pain or misery. An imperative in the third and fourth line instructs the mourner to ‘Look how the snowy mountains/Heaven’s sun doth gently waste.’ I had a bit of trouble interpreting this, but I am pretty happy with my final interpretation. The snow on a mountain melts gently, but constantly over the course of history and maybe the poem is advising the mourner that the pain will stay with them forever, but they should not allow it to overpower them. When it mentions ‘Heaven’s sun’ we can connect it with the personal relationship. The sun is the centre of the universe and if we associate it with a person would be the most important person in your life: Queen or lover? So the mourner is the mountain and the sun is the mourned with the connection with heaven elevating them and associating them with divinity.
The chorus continues this association with heaven, but also suggests this person is just as important to the singer/reader of the poem. ‘My sun’s heavenly eyes’ implies that this person was the centre of their universe too, perhaps making it more likely to be Queen Elizabeth than a lover as it is a mourning that is shared. Then we have the soothing idea of the lost as ‘sleeping softly’ repeated in the final two lines. This is a pleasant way to think about death, peaceful and calm rather than miserable and empty.
The second stanza uses another rhetorical question to get the mourner to consider the reason behind their weeping. ‘Doth not the sun rise smiling/When fair at even he sets?’ shows that the sun is able to come back as brilliant as ever after it has gone to sleep/switched shifts with the moon and the suggestion is that time and rest will have the same impact as on the mourners.
The soothing chorus is almost identical to stanza one, but just prior to this we have another soothing repeated idea: ‘Rest you then, rest, sad eyes’. This emphasises the advice, but also slows the pace so it comes across as caring.
Well, this is a song so again we have a chorus partly as a repetitive rhyme and style for the singsong effect. In addition to this the poem/song is written in a falling pattern, where the lines graduallyget smaller, and has a regularly, repetitive rhythm to make it quite like a child’s lullaby, appropriate because of the soothing, soft quality of lullabies.
Another thing you have to mention is the shape of the poem. Why do all the lines start in different places? The shape has been deliberately contrived in mirror the fountains mentioned in the title; notice how the writing flows down the page like a tear running down a face.
Consoling and comforting. This song is meant to sooth somebody in a bit of a bad place and is gentle and rhythmic lullaby basically saying don’t worry, everything will be alright, they’re at peace now.