NOWHERE in English poetry is there a greater sense of joyful artlessness, of happy spontaneity, than in the Elizabethan songs. The mood is youthfully elated, light rather than headlong; the emotion is arrested and refined; the manner is seemingly careless. But if the melody is slight it is perfect. Intellectual subtlety, which has no place in song, gives way to lyric fluency; meaning is suggested, not underscored, by an idealized music.
The limitations of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century lyrics are obvious. Stressing the music instead of the meaning, the poets sometimes fell into a pattern of refinement, a diction which Sir Walter Raleigh declared was "apparreled, or rather disguised, in a courtisanlike painted affectation." In a world of conventional amour, of pretty languors and no apparent labor, the poet's lady -- whether a court nymph or a country Nell -- was herself a convention, a literary stock in trade. Yet, in spite of a restraint that was frequently a pretense, frank and intimate emotions broke through. The best of the Elizabethan songs retain their personality even when the persons who wrote them are unknown.
The two main sources of Elizabethan lyrics are the miscellanies or anthologies modeled on Tottel SONGS AND SONNETS, and the music sheets and songbooks in which the words were not merely "set" but written to be sung. Part songs were a passion in the late sixteenth century; publication of songs for three, four, and five voices be