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November 11, 2020

Why Doesn't Greensleeves Rhyme?

Art thou in the mood for Traditional Englishe Ballades? Yesterday, a friend asked me why there are couplets in the traditional English song "Greensleeves" that don't rhyme. Most of the song is in an ABAB rhyme scheme, but some lines stand out for not rhyming at all. Or rather, not rhyming in modern versions. In 1580, when the song first appeared, the song did rhyme - we've just changed the language a bit since then.

The song "Greensleeves" was first registered in 1580. This date is important because there were some great changes happening in the English language, not least of which is the Great Vowel Shift. The Great Vowel Shift is a series of changes that happened in English that overhauled the entire vowel system, resulting in modern English sounding very different from Middle English.

A painting by Rossetti. A woman is wearing a dress with green sleeves.

The changes didn't happen all at once - the Great Vowel Shift is often divided into phases. Greensleeves was written after the first phase of the Great Vowel Shift, but not quite having completetd the second phase.

"I have been readie at your hand,
⁠to grant what ever you would crave.
I have both waged life and land,
⁠your love and good will for to have."

Here, "have" and "crave" rhyme. No modern rendition of Greensleeves rhymes these two, with "crave" having the /e/ sound and "have" having the /æ/ sound. But in Middle English, "crave" and "have" rhymed, both having an /a/ sound. The Great Vowel Shift would later affect "crave", raising the vowel to become /e/.

Why did "have" not become [hejv]? Some more common words escaped the effects of the GVS - for example, 'bead' and 'bread' used to rhyme, but 'bead' changed to an /i/ sound and 'bread' didn't. The uneven applicability of the GVS has ruined the rhyme for modern English speakers.

Another failed rhyme occurs in this verse:

"Thy purse and eke thy gay guilt knives,
⁠thy pincase gallant to the eye:
No better wore the Burgesse wives,
⁠and yet thou wouldst not love me."

"Eye" in modern English is /ai/, and "me" is /i/. But "eye" and "me" rhyme here. What did "eye" sound like, and what did "me" sound like? We can get some tips, because "me" is rhymed with a number of words throughout the song:

"Thy girdle of gold so red,
⁠with pearles bedecked sumptuously:
The like no other lasses had,
⁠and yet thou wouldst not loue me,"
"My men were clothed all in green,
⁠And they did euer wait on thee
Al this was gallant to be seen,
⁠and yet thou wouldst not love me."

"Me" rhymes with other "thee" and "sumptuously," suggesting all these words ended in the same vowel.

"Me" and "thee" both had an /e:/ vowel in Middle English. The GVS would have already raised them both to /i/ at this point. The "-ly" suffix was already pronounced with /i/ in Middle English, and was not affected at this phase. So it seems that "eye", which was originally /ɛi/, had become /i:/!

A final interesting note: the song's first two verses use "you", but the song switches to "thou" on the third verse and stays that way for the rest of the song.

First Verse:
Alas my love, ye do me wrong,
⁠to cast me off discurteously:
And I haue loved you so long,
⁠Delighting in your companie.
Third Verse:
I bought thee kerchers to thy head, ⁠that were wrought fine and gallantly: I kept thee both at boord and bed, ⁠Which cost my purse wel fauouredly,

The famous English playwright William Shakespeare also did this switching. "Thou" was used for social inferiors or intimate relationships, and "you" was used to indicate distance, formality, or respect.

BENEDICT. Tarry, good Beatrice. By this hand, I love thee.
BEATRICE. Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it.
BENEDICT. Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?

- Much Ado About Nothing

The play "Much Ado About Nothing" was written between 1598 and 1599, almost twenty years after Greensleeves was first registered. If we apply the same line of thinking to the song "Greensleeves," it begins with a respectful reference to the addressee, before degrading into either disrespect or intimacy.

Finally, a fun fact - Shakespeare was aware of the song "Greensleeves," for he references it in his play "Merry Wives of Windsor:"

"Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of 'Greensleeves'."

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