Let’s begin with Thomas Moore, the author of our lyrics, an Irishman who lived from 1779-1852. He had a long and varied career, as they say, which could have ended much sooner if the duel he was supposed to fight in 1806 had not been stopped by the authorities; he forever afterward had to deal with rumors that his opponent (the editor of a critical review) had been given an unloaded pistol.
Eventually Moore was persuaded to write lyrics to some already-established Irish airs; in addition to “Sing, Sing” we are performing another selection from these works, “The Minstrel Boy,” but its meaning is pretty self-evident. This collection of songs also included the more-famous “The Last Rose of Summer” and “Believe Me, If All These Endearing Young Charms.” Perhaps we’ll get to those at some future date.
On to the matter at hand. If you’re like me, you found some of these lines very puzzling. Then again, maybe not—maybe you’re able to figure out abstruse imagery as you’re sight-reading a piece, but that sure wasn’t the case for me. I asked myself the deep critical question “Huh?” as we sang it through last week for the first time.
So let’s take a look and see what’s what, plodding through the lyrics and figuring them out as we go. This analysis is all pretty much composed of my own ideas, as I didn’t find anything about these particular lyrics online. Google let me down!
Sing, sing, music was given to brighten the gay and kindle the loving.
Souls here, like planets in heaven, by harmony’s laws alone are kept moving.
These two lines form a repeated refrain, so we’d better get their meaning clear first. Isn’t it interesting that Moore doesn’t say music can brighten the sad and kindle the unloving? He seems to be saying instead the music is an intensifier of emotion, not a creator. Seems reasonable—so far, so good. But what about that second line? Remember, these words were written in the first half of the 1800’s. Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and gravity had been around for a little more than 100 years, so I’m guessing that Moore was referring to those with his mention of the planets, which keep moving by means of centrifugal force. But souls, humans, keep moving—emotionally, anyway—by means of “harmony,” or (I speculate) the attractions between them. Human gravity, as it were. That sort of makes sense, doesn’t it?
But now we get to the hard(er) part:
Beauty may boast of her eyes and her cheeks, but Love from the lips his true archery wings;
And she who but feathers her dart when she speaks, at once sends it home to the heart when she sings.
This is about where I was having my “Huh?” moment last week, but once you take it phrase by phrase the meaning emerges. Break it down!
So, if someone wants to be known for her beauty, she might point to her gorgeous eyes and lovely complexion, but those qualities alone aren’t enough to kindle love. Instead, it’s what she says that causes Cupid’s arrow to fly to its target (“his true archery”). It’s an idea that’s really pretty common, if you think about it: the dumb-but-beautiful woman who destroys her whole image the minute she opens her mouth. (Remember the plot of “Singin’ in the Rain” when the silent movie female star’s career is jeopardized by the advent of the talkies?)
That’s pretty clear. But what about this whole “feathers her dart” beeswax? Moore is still using the imagery of Cupid and his arrows, so we have to turn to archery to get the picture. Arrows (or darts) have feathers, or “flights” at the end of their shafts, which make the arrow fly straighter. So when a woman speaks to her hoped-for lover she is merely preparing his heart; she is merely getting Cupid’s arrow ready by attaching the feathers. But when she sings, well, the dart goes straight to its target. (This is assuming that she can sing well.)
Now we move to a scene straight from mythology:
When Love, rocked by his mother lay sleeping and calm as slumber could make him,
“Hush, hush,” said Venus, “no other sweet voice but his own is worthy to wake him.”
Dreaming of music, he slumber’d the while till faint from his lip a soft melody broke,
And Venus enchanted, looked on with a smile, while Love to his own sweet singing awoke.
Cupid, or Love, is the son of Venus, the goddess of love, and is usually of course pictured as a chubby baby with wings and a bow and arrow. (In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, though, he is a handsome young man.) He is often portrayed with the motto “amor vincit omnia” (“love conquers all”). So, if you follow the little storyline in this stanza, Love cannot be wakened except by love. It comes only from itself; it is self-generating. So Cupid, lying asleep in his mother’s lap, is not worthy of being disturbed by any sound other than that of his own voice.
Moore has therefore managed to shovel in planetary dynamics, archery, and classical mythology, all to an Irish tune. Quite an accomplishment!
Bonus: Here’s the clip from “Singin’ in the Rain”: