Love Pleasant: Constancy and Craftiness

by Kris McAbee (2007)

Approximately one-third of the entire Pepys collection is categorized as “Love Pleasant.” Based on these numbers alone, one might get the impression that the preponderance of early modern ballads took the form of love songs—that is, of verses that praise the wonders of love or of lovers. Yet in this large and varied category, “pleasant” tales of requited love prove the exception rather than the rule. The fact that “Love Pleasant” holds the largest selection of ballads in the collection seems to speak more to the shifting boundaries of Pepys’s categorizations than to anything inherent in the ballad that would make it ideal for cataloging under the pleasures of love. In fact, the “pleasant” nature of the ballads in “Love Pleasant” stems not necessarily from their depiction of successful, happy, or even pleasing love, but rather from the rather amiable and good-humored tone of the majority of these ballads, even in cases when the ballads depict love—or in many cases, lust—gone awry. Indeed, one of the most commonly repeated phrases in this category is not an exposition on love, but, rather, a self-referential phrase marking the “cream of the jest,” or the best part of the joke.

A significant number of the ballads in this category do consist of extended meditations on love—whether through almost Petrarchan terms,1 descriptions of exemplary beloved women, or delineations of relationships that are “successful” (inasmuch as they end in marriage and, frequently, the birth of a son). But many of the ballads do not depict pleasant love; on the contrary, they describe fundamentally lonely or unhappy people who in many ways are, in fact, unlucky in love. If we are to demand some logic, then, for separating out the category of “Love Unfortunate” in the Pepys collection, it is, as Jessica C. Murphy articulates in her essay on that category, the fine distinction between unlucky love and unlucky lovers. As you read through the selected ballads, consider how “pleasant” they make love seem. How do these depictions of misadventures in romance compare to modern-day romantic comedies? What lessons do the lovers, and do we as the audience, learn from the ballads? Consider how the unlucky lovers in “Love Pleasant” merely serve as comic emblems of how in the dicey world of love and lust one must choose wisely, be crafty, and be ever aware of the seduction of vices and of inconstancy.

While it would be unfeasible and awkward to define subcategories within “Love Pleasant” that fully encompass this largely varied group, it is possible to note within this category several themes that among them manage to touch on almost all of the ballads. The first of these themes deals primarily with one lover’s fondness for another; and though some simply tell the story of an opportune wooing, most such ballads—and, indeed, “Love Pleasant” in general—center on the expectations surrounding women. Some catalogue the beloved’s many virtues, as is the case with “Jone is as good as my Lady” (1.236-237, EBBA 20108) or one of the many Scottish ballads, such as “Jockey's Complaint For His Beloved Moggy” (5.263, EBBA 22098). Other ballads in this theme tell the story of lovers who set an example through their constancy and affection. For example, “The Discourse betweene A Souldier and his Love” (1.296-297, EBBA 20139) is one of several ballads which discuss women of extreme devotion who follow their loves everywhere, and even disguise themselves as men to do so. Additional ballads, such as “A Young mans opinion of the difference betweene good and bad Women” (1.230-231, EBBA 20104), likewise delineate what is expected of a good woman, but its refrain of “Yet if she be not such to me, / What care I how foule she be” replaces “foule” alternately with “curst,” “bad,” “fool,” “proud,” “ill,” and “old,” demonstrating the typical tone of the ballads in this category. Regardless of the occasional negative qualities of the beloved, the subject itself tends to be presented in a most good-humored way.

Repeated mentions of May as the ideal time for frolicking and enjoying a lover’s company, frequently in a pastoral setting, further exhibit the playful nature of these ballads in “Love Pleasant.” Although this theme seems to apply to the most light-hearted ballads, even these ballads could have a didactic purpose. “A pleasant country maying song” (1.337, EBBA 20010), for example, circuitously suggests that maids stand in danger of losing their virtue during these springtime romps, but this chastisement seems merely perfunctory in light of the jocular and frivolous tone of the text. As a continuation of the “Maying song” theme, “The loving Forrester” (1.326-327, EBBA 20156) also exemplifies “Love Pleasant’s” prevalent theme of a speaker or character expressing his or her anxiety about “lying alone.” In “The loving Forrester,” the female protagonist declares:

I cannot stay,
      till Husband hath me wedded:
This is the merry month of May,
      and now I must be bedded.

Although this woman’s disdain for customs surrounding her virtue and chastity may seem atypical, her longing for a lover shares a thematic similarity with several of the ballads in this category. Which message is predominant: the need to stay chaste or the wish to “be bedded”? Do the two desires necessarily compete with each other?

Throughout “Love Pleasant” both male and female characters refuse to “lye alone” in ballads that express painful anxieties regarding finding a suitable and constant mate, or finding any mate at all. Many ballads use the occasion of discussing lust to make extended bawdy jokes, such as “The Helpless Maidens Call To The Batchellors” (5.195, EBBA 22458) and its reply, “The Batchellor’s Answer To The Helpless Maiden” (5.196, EBBA 22459). In these ballads, the audience becomes especially complicit in the lewdness, since the jokes rely on rhymes that suggest vulgar words, which are omitted. For example, the rhymes in the final stanza of “The Helpless Maidens Call” easily bring to mind an obscene word, but the cream of the jest comes with the closing and completely respectable word:

Few Maids have met with so good luck
As to encounter the first pluck,
Oh this would tempt young girls to ------
      there again, there again,
Oh! This would tempt young Girls to Marry.

The more refined model ballad “A Mayden’s Lamentation for a Bedfellow” (1.246-247, EBBA 20113; also 1.286-287, EBBA 20134) happily couples the maiden with a willing mate in the second part, “The Mans comfortable answer,” but many characters in other ballads are tricked into unfaithful relationships. However, it seems that those ballads with more disappointing endings still qualify as “Love Pleasant” due to their humorous, albeit occasionally mean-spirited, depictions.

The kind of coarse subject matter at work in these ballads carries over into another theme at work in “Love Pleasant,” one that deals with pressing anxiety over being careful with chastity. These ballads together add up to a veritable tightrope walk for a young woman: if she scorns a wooer too quickly, he may never return and she will lament her lonely state, as in “Sweetheart, I love thee” (1.262-263, EBBA 20121). If she fails to turn her seducer away, she may end up impregnated and without any money, as in “A pleasant song of a Mayden faire” (1.244-245, EBBA 20112), or she may have to abandon her child and abscond to London where she can still pretend to be a maid, as in “Under and over” (1.264-265, EBBA 20122). The most representative selection within this theme depicts women who do much to reject the advances of a suitor, hence protecting their virtue by not seeming too eager, but who are eventually persuaded. These maidens’ immediate rejections of their suitors manage to maintain a humorous tone through both their subject matter and also the comic manner in which they are eventually won over with sudden flippancy. Evidencing the moralizing nature of these ballads, the most common rebuff comes in the form of an explicit and entertaining expression of distaste for the many ways in which the suitors’ vices could corrupt her.

Some ballads seem extremely different from each other in terms of subject, such as “The scornefull Maid” (1.248-249, EBBA 20114), which describes a woman who turns down all eighteen of her suitors, and “The kind hearted Creature” (1.292-293, EBBA 20137), a tale of a remarkable woman who had so many lovers she does not know who the father of her child is. But even these two seemingly disparate ballads are actually very much aligned in terms of their humorous tone. Moreover, they are quite similar in that they are primarily occupied not with explicating the qualities of the nominally central character but instead with mocking the maid’s suitors or lovers.

Constancy and, correspondingly, accusations of inconstancy are also a prevalent theme in “Love Pleasant,” and no gender escapes indictment. Anxieties over drinking, gambling, and yielding to the enticements of “punks” (prostitutes) are also voiced throughout these ballads. While some ballads argue that women are always inconstant, others argue that men are not to be trusted. In additional ballads both men and women defend themselves from these accusations. Ballads like “The Innocent Shepherd and the Crafty Wife” (3.209, EBBA 21222) and “The Country Cozen or The Crafty City Dame” (3.249, EBBA 21263), rather than relying on a speaker to expound his or her own opinions on the threats of inconstancy, warn of women who cheat on their husbands through a witty dialogue in one and a humorous narrative in the other. Both of the “crafty” women in these ballads cleverly trick their husbands while cuckolding them. The innocent shepherd’s shivering stutter that the winter is making him cold (“cuc-cold”) allows for the pun on cuckoldry or adultery that suggests quite another cause for his misery, and his crafty wife reveals the cream of the jest: “He’s a Fool that repines at what can’t be redrest, / Be glad you no more are Cuc–Cold then the rest.” Meanwhile, the crafty city dame convinces her lover to crossdress and pretend to be her country cousin on a visit, thereby cozening (tricking) her husband into allowing her to share her bed with another man.

Not all crafty women use their cleverness to cheat on their husbands. In “Frauncis new Jigge” (1.226-227, EBBA 20102), a ballad set to many tunes and replete with stage directions, the farmer’s wife, Besse, is both crafty and constant. She devises a plan to teach the gentleman, Francis, a lesson when he tries to seduce her. Whether as a narrative, dialogue, or miniature drama, the idea of “craftiness” runs throughout the category; indeed, when women are not described as “coy” or “cruel” for showing caution or rejecting love, they are often “crafty,” “witty,” or “confident,” playing the game of love and frequently winning at the expense of men’s pride. The popularity of these ballads about “crafty” women is further manifested in ballads like “The Crafty Lass of the West” (4.7, EBBA 21674), in which the term “crafty” is used ironically to describe a young woman who not only trades her virginity for a fashionable hat, but also humorously believes she can regain her “maidenhead” by simply having sex again. In the end, she has not found love, and is no longer in possession of her hat or her maidenhood, but she is none the wiser and the audience has enjoyed a chuckle at the not-so-crafty lass’s misadventure.

On the whole, does this category seem to entail the kind of love that pleases the lovers? Are any of the characters in the ballads safe enough from mockery to witness the pleasing aspects of love? Or, rather, does “Love Pleasant,” in fact, occasion the kind of love which primarily pleases the listener? If so, perhaps “Love Pleasant” provides insight into how laughing in the face of societal expectations like chastity and monogamy also co-opts from some of the more unpleasant aspects of human nature, like xenophobia and sexism. The question remains, then, for whom are these jokes and lessons about love ultimately pleasant?

1 Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, was a fourteenth-century scholar and poet who made famous the Italian sonnet form. In this context, “Petrarchan” refers to the themes expressed in his Canzoniere, especially the pains of unrequited love and the divine nature of the beloved—themes that became the norm for Renaissance love poetry.