Babylon, Baltimore Consort, Chludov Psaltery, Dennis Moore, Desdemona, Euphrates, Hamlet, Highwaymen, humours, Israelites, JE Millais, Melancholy, Monty Python, Old Man Willow, Ophelia, Othello, Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, The Carman's Whistle, The Lord of the Rings, The Old Forest, Tigris, Tolkien, Tom Bombadil, William Shakespeare, Willow
As always, dear readers, welcome.
In our last posting, although we were talking about 18th-century highwaymen, somehow—we blame the “Dennis Moore” sketch—
we included mention of a willow.
In Anglo-American culture, the willow has long suggested melancholy, perhaps being somehow linked with Psalm 137, which laments the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586BC and the so-called “Babylonian captivity” of the Israelites?
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Under all of that heavy-handed Babylonian mockery is the simple fact that willows are water-lovers, so it would be natural that they would grow near the Euphrates and Tigris, the two major rivers of Babylon.
If the Israelites are no longer singing, we would guess that parking their harps on the willows would be as good a place as any. Certainly medieval manuscript illustrators had no trouble envisioning it. This is from the 9th-century Chludov Psaltery (a collection of psalms).
“Melancholy”, medieval/Renaissance people believed,
came from an imbalance of the four “humours” which ran the body and its emotions and people in Shakespeare’s day and beyond appear to have so suffered from it that they consulted a famous and popular text, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. That this was a pressing matter for the people of this age is clear from the length of the first edition of 1621—it’s nearly 900 pages—and later editions, which appeared within the next few years, were even longer. This is the frontispiece of the 1638 edition–
A common treatment for the problem (too much black bile in the system—the “melan-“ part is Greek for “black”—the “-choly” is the “choler”, or bile) was to listen to music, but clearly not all music was soothing, as we see in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599-1601) , where Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, goes mad and spends her time drifting around the castle singing bits of unhappy songs and handing out flowers with significant meanings. As music can be involved with melancholy, so, as we said, can willows and the two come together when Ophelia trusts a willow–
“There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.” (Hamlet, Act IV, Sc 7)
(This is a painting by JE Millais, 1851/2. That “dead men’s fingers” should have been enough, we think!)
The melancholy continues in Shakspeare’s Othello (1604), Act IV, Scene 3, where the soon-to-be-murdered-by-the-title-character Desdemona sings a sad little song, beginning:
“The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,(45)
Sing willow, willow, willow.
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones”—
(It seems like this posting can’t escape including even more trees. Sycamores are another water-loving tree,
but the emphasis here is upon that willow and we’ll stick with it.)
Perhaps it’s the slumping shape, which might suggest despair, or at least grief, but the willow began to appear on tombstones here in the US at the beginning of the 19th century, sometimes by itself,
sometimes shading other symbols of mourning, like an urn.
It could appear in other funerary art, as well—as in pictures
and even as part of another funerary—and life—custom of the time, the giving/exchanging of locks of hair. In this mourning brooch, one can see a willow made from such a lock.
With such a grim history, it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that a willow familiar to readers of The Lord of the Rings might have a sinister purpose.
He’s not alone in being hostile foliage. As Merry tells Frodo, Sam, and Pippin:
“But the Forest is queer. Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire. And the trees do not like strangers. They watch you. They are usually content merely to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much. Occasionally the most unfriendly ones may drop a branch, or stick a root out, or grasp at you with a long trailer. But at night things can be most alarming… (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 6, “The Old Forest”)
Their journey through the Forest, intended to put some space between them and the danger of the Nazgul, provides its own dangers, as the place seems to move about of its own accord, confusing travelers—or worse:
“Suddenly Frodo himself felt sleep overwhelming him. His head swam. There now seemed hardly a sound in the air. The flies had stopped buzzing. Only a gentle noise on the edge of hearing, a soft fluttering as of a song half whispered, seemed to stir in the boughs above. He lifted his heavy eyes and saw leaning over him a huge willow-tree, old and hoary. Enormous it looked, its sprawling branches going up like reaching arms with many long-fingered hands, its knotted and twisted trunk gaping in wide fissures that creaked faintly as the boughs moved…”
We are a far cry from Monty Python here. The willow then tries to drown Frodo, swallows Pippin completely, and the upper half of Merry, and, were it not for the appearance of perhaps the oddest character in The Lord of the Rings, it is difficult to imagine what would have happened next.
What will happen in our next posting, however, you will see next week (hint: the posting is entitled, “Never This Willow”). In the meantime,
Thanks, as always, for reading and
To treat any melancholy you might feel from reading this posting, please see below for a very merry Elizabethan song ably performed by the Baltimore Consort.
And here’s a LINK to a set of lyrics c. 1590 so that you can follow along. You’ll notice that it includes melancholy, trees, and music, all in one.