The court of Elizabeth 1, 1590s
The world at large, modern times
It Was A Time When Silly Bees Could Speak has presented new angles every time I come back to it – as a listener, performer, researcher and whatever hats I wear.
I first listened to the recording of Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley’s album Time Stands Still about a decade ago as a school leaver, about to launch into university studies in music and English. As I learned the craft of performing, I started to appreciate its text and music academically. As a researcher of historical performance practices, I got to know its background of political intrigue – of a poet who wanted too much and a composer who dwelt in melancholy.
Lately, as a millennial living in a polarized world, I’ve come to regard it in another light – a complaint of the lifters to the leaners in the narrative that has been foisted on my generation. Yet at its surface, this is a song about the world of bees.
It was a time when silly bees could speak
and in that time I was a silly bee
who fed on thyme until my heart ‘gan break,
yet never found the time would favour me.
of all the swarm I only did not thrive,
yet brought I wax and honey to the hive.
I came to know the poet who wrote these words in the course of my historical research. It was believed to be Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex who was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite in the 1590s. Courtiers in the Elizabethan time was judge by the quality of their verses as much as by their deeds of arms. And Essex was noble and wealthy enough to become the patron of many writers and musicians, including one John Dowland.
The more difficult question is why did Dowland take that patronage despite having no lack of royal connection? His most illustrious employer was the King of Denmark. Yet Dowland’s works was full of allusions to Essex’s family. He wrote the Earl of Essex’s Galliard (a type of court dance) and another for Essex’s uncle Henry Nollys.
Then thus I buzz’d when thyme no sap would give,
why should this bless thyme to me be dry
sith by this thyme the lazy drone doth live,
the wasp, the worm, the gnat, the butterfly.
mated with grief, I kneeled on my knees,
and thus complain’d unto the Queen of bees.
The poem is built on a word play between time and thyme (a favourite diet for bees). In the second verse, the poet’s bitterness is more apparent. I have often wondered if the mention of the wasp, the worm, the gnat, the butterfly was references to other courtiers. Walter Raleigh, who had always been his rival for the Queen’s affection, came to mind. But the words are not meant only for his time.
Beyond the petty squabbles of bygone nobles is a familiar thread of my own time. These words feel like the same complaint of the silent, angry and polarized masses who ask: “Why should this bleedin’ thyme to me be dry”? Wielders of democratic rights as weapons of bitterness, they try to justify their rightness while I and millions more must hold our peace because our choices seem to count for nothing … because it seems that we’ve lost in the great debate not once, but many times over.
There’s another parallel between then and now. Politic in Essex’s days was dependent on the whim or wisdom of one person: the ruling monarch. Nowadays, the players have morphed into a merry-go-round of vested interests and official meetings which takes place behind the closed, darkened curtains. I learned the hard way that even with a vast interest in politics, there’s no way to predict the hearts and minds of others; even friends.
Essex’s bitterness came from the curbing of his power after a disastrous handling of the Irish war. Despite being placed at the extraordinary position of influencing said Monarch, he found out the hard way that he wasn’t above the law. But at least he got a hearing.
“My liege, gods grant thy time may never end,
and yet vouchsafe to hear my plaint of thyme,
which fruitless flies have found to have a friend,
and I cast down when atomies do climb”,
the queen replied but thus, “peace, peevish bee.
Thou art bound to serve the time, the thyme not thee.”
When John Dowland published his Third Book of Songs and Airs in 1603, Essex had been executed and his name was not mentioned. Elizabeth I herself would pass that year. But this complaint remains, and the time for the silly bees is not over. It is for mine and my generation to live for.
N.B.: the text of the poem has been altered from “King of bees” to “Queen of bees” to better reflect the science of insects and Elizabethan history.