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I struggle to understand the meaning of the song "Though Philomela lost her love" by Thomas Morley. The song was published in 1602.

The lyric is:

Though Philomela lost her love,
fresh note she warbleth yes! again;
Fa la la la.

He is a fool that lovers prove:
and leaves to sing, to live in pain.
Fa la la la

I did not find any official interpretation or translation of the song (my native tongue is German), so it is all my interpretation of the lyric.

I think, the first part is about Philomela, a figure in Greek mythology (click here for the long story). Very short: She was raped (=lost her love) and her tongue was cut out. Later she took revenge and was then transformed into a nightingale that sang beautifully (=fresh note she warbleth yes! again).

So far, I think, it's clear, but I struggle with the second verse:

He, Tereus the rapist, is an idiot that lovers prove. What does this relative clause mean? I know the words, but I don't understand the meaning. Does "prove" means confirm here? Might it be a hint to sex that confirmes the relationship of two lovers?

Tereus was later also transformed to a bird (=and leaves to sing) and he lost his son by Philomelas revenge, so he lives in pain.

  • English written before one was born does not make it count as Old English for that alone. This is not Old English, a tongue unspoken for almost a thousand years now. This is merely Early Modern English. Old English is another thing altogether, one you likely could not read without time and learning spent in doing so. – tchrist Dec 15 '16 at 12:52
  • I keep trying to figure out whether they the lovers are proving him the fool or whether he the fool is proving them the lovers. That aside, there is an older meaning of prove that means "test". – tchrist Dec 15 '16 at 13:02
  • @tchrist, then some more facts: Philomela does not have a boyfriend/husband after the rape, but she takes her revenge together with her sister (sisterly love?), who is Tereus' wife. – Iris Dec 15 '16 at 13:11
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    Is there any evidence that the second verse also refers to the Philomela myth, and that 'he' is Tereus? Looking at other references to Philomela in literature her name is used to reference the nightingale in situations where it does not necessarily invoke any other detail of the myth. – Spagirl Dec 15 '16 at 13:46
  • @Spagirl, no, there is no evidence. The entire interpretation with the Greek mythology is my interpretation of the song. I did not find any "official" interpretations. – Iris Dec 15 '16 at 13:48
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Here is the wording of the lyric that appears in Edmund Fellowes, English Madrigal Verse, 1588–1632 (1920):

Though Philomela lost her love,

Fresh notes she warbleth, yet again.

He is a fool that lovers prove,

And leaves to sing to live in pain.

The main differences between this version and the one that the poster cites are in line 2: "notes" for "note," and "yet" for "yes!" There are also some differences in punctuation—most notably the period at the end of line 2 in Fellowes's version as opposed to the semicolon in the poster's version.

The period ending line 2 is significant, I think, because it supports the suggestion that Spagirl makes (in a comment above) that there may be no connection between the "He" in line 2 and any character in the Philomela myth to whom lines 1 and 2 may allude.

On the face of it, the song first offers two lines about the behavior of the nightingale (imagined as a transformed girl), which sings though she is alone and lovelorn. Then it turns to consider a person (I nominate the songwriter) who has chosen (perhaps) to test the love of two lovers (I nominate himself and his beloved) in some unstated way; and finally it accompanies that person as he leaves the presence of the lover[s] to sing alone in pain—like the anthropomorphized nightingale.

The particular line of interest—"He is a fool that lovers prove"—may use the verb prove in the now semi-archaic sense of "test" that tchrist points out in a comment above (as my initial reading of it does). But another possibility involves an even more out-of-the-way meaning of prove, which Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) gives as follows:

prove ... vt (13c) 1 archaic : to learn or find out by experience

This meaning of prove is the one that Marlowe has in mind in "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" (written no later than 1593):

Come live with me and be my Love,

And we will all the pleasures prove

That hills and valleys, dales and fields,

Or woods or steepy mountain yields.

Marlowe isn't offering to establish by ratiocination that such pleasures exist; he is urging his love to experience them with him.

This sense of prove invites a different interpretation of line 3—something like

He is a fool who learns first-hand the ways of lovers

—namely that they will break your heart, and you will find yourself, like Philomela, flitting from tree to tree as the night deepens, singing your song of sorrow and hard-earned wisdom.

Either reading requires a little help from the listener/reader to make perfect syntactical sense. Specifically you have to supply a dropped auxiliary verb:

He is a fool that lovers [doth] prove,

Without the (arguably) missing doth, you have a statement that seems syntactically straightforward ("He is a fool whom lovers test [or learn by experience]") but doesn't stand up to logical scrutiny (why does a lover's decision to test you or experience you make you a fool?).

But once you interpolate the doth, the singer's complaint makes sense—and you get to choose between interpreting the lyric as a lament for having needlessly and foolishly put one or more lovers to the test, and interpreting it as a lament for having been victimized by foolishly learning through bitter experience about lovers and their deceits. On that front, my advice is "When you're dealing with a songwriter, never bet against the more self-pitying meaning."

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