The Song from Cymbeline
by William Shakespeare, 1564-1616
Shakespeare's play Cymbeline was written in 1608 or 1609, when the playwright was in his mid-forties. It is famous for having an excruciatingly complicated plot. The joke used to be that theater managers ought to offer cash prizes to anyone who, after watching the play, could explain what had happened. Johnson was particularly severe:
This play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expence of much incongruity. To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation. [Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare (1765)]
Cymbeline isn't really that bad, if you pay attention and read a synopsis beforehand, and it does have this lovely funeral song in Act IV.
The song is sung (and in most productions it actually is sung, though the music used in Shakespeare's time has been lost) by two boys over the dead body of another boy. They have just buried this boy; or rather, since neither the plot nor the realities of stage performance allow for burial, they have laid him out supine and scattered flowers and herbs on him.
As a matter of fact the dead boy is neither dead nor a boy. The "corpse" is that of Imogen, daughter of the king of Britain. She is dressed in male attire only because she is traveling incognito. Feeling ill while a guest of these two boys and her father, she took some medicine her stepmother had given her when she set out. The stepmother is, naturally, wicked, and believes the potion to be lethal. In fact it is only a sleeping draught.
Imogen eventually wakes up to find herself lying next to the body of her step-brother, which she mistakenly supposes is that of her husband … Well, you see what people mean about the plot.
"sceptre, learning, physic" — Kings, scholars, and doctors.
"thunder-stone" — thunderbolt.
"consign" — This is a knotty Shakespearean point, one of those you can get a Ph.D. for developing a new theory about. The most popular current theory is that it means "co-sign," in the sense of signing up to the same fate.
"ghost unlaid forbear thee" — May ghosts not yet laid (i.e. neutralized by appropriate ceremonies) leave you alone.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
Fear no more the heat o' th' sun
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o' th' great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke.
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak.
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor th' all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear no slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan.
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee,
Nor no witchcraft charm thee.
Ghost unlaid forbear thee;
Nothing ill come near thee.
Quiet consummation have,
And renowned be thy grave.