There’s a 400-year-old verse that I consider ideal for demonstrating change in the English language. It’s “The lowest trees have tops,” by a nobody called Edward Dyer.
As poetry, it operates at about the level of forgettable pop music. It’s standard iambic pentameter, and the rhyme pattern is ABABCC. What first struck me is the way all the rhymes in the last stanza fail, because the vowels have shifted.1
The first stanza goes like this:
The lowest trees have tops, the ant her gall,
The fly her spleen, the little spark his heat,
And slender hairs cast shadows though but small,
And bees have stings although they be not great.
Seas have their source, and so have shallow springs,
And love is love in beggars and in kings.
In the fourth line, Dyer is awkwardly unclear about whether the bees or their stings “be not great.”2 Still, the parade of images can start fruitful discussions, besides the phonetic problem of why “heat” is supposed to rhyme with “great.” For example, what are “gall” and “spleen”?3 In writing “seas have their source,” was the poet assuming that there is a huge salt spring at the bottom of the ocean?
Only one rhyme failed in the first stanza. In the second, all three rhymes are obsolete, vividly suggesting how the sound of spoken English has changed.
Where waters smoothest run, deep are the fords,
The dial stirs, yet none perceives it move:
The firmest faith is in the fewest words,
The turtles cannot sing, and yet they love,
True hearts have eyes and ears — no tongues to speak:
They hear, and see, and sigh, and then they break.
Besides the rhyme failures, there are several words here, too, that could bear some historical inquiry. Present-day students might need help interpreting “fords,” “dial,” and especially, “turtles.” Even students who ride horses for recreation will not know the anxiety of deciding where and when to ride across an unfamiliar stream. Clocks have long since ceased to be objects of contemplation, especially as they no longer require daily maintenance, nor do they normally call attention to their presence with ticks and chimes. And the only winged turtles left in our language are probably the two in the pear tree at Christmas.
Edward Dyer’s poem is in The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires (London: Thomas Adams, 21 February 1603), by the great lutenist John Dowland. If you prefer your rhymes with earlye moderne spelyng, see “The lowest trees haue tops.”
1 This doesn’t mean that the poem accurately represents the state of spoken English in 1603, when it was published. The vowels had already started shifting, and many of the traditional rhymes trotted out by Dyer may have already been verging on obsolescence. Consider how modern choral composers still cram “over” (“o’er”) and “heaven” (“heav’n”) into a single syllable, because that’s how their predecessors did it. ↩
2 I’m inclined to think it’s bees that are “not great.” Dyer probably imagined their stings as resembling tiny swords, and in Dyer’s time and place, the wearing of a sword was one of the markers of a great man, or gentleman. That would make it worth remarking that “bees have stings although [bees] be not great.” ↩
3 I feel sure that gall and spleen are, respectively, choler and melancholy, or yellow bile and black bile, in the humorist theory of human physiology. But don’t take my word for it. ↩