Fine knacks for ladies (by John Dowland) – for string quartet



Instrumental arrangement of John Dowland’s famous song (with variations for verses 2 and 3 with various instruments taking the main melody).

My theory regarding the meaning behind the words of Dowland’s “Fine Knacks for Ladies”

The singer is in fact a would-be lover but he puts on the persona of a tinker or pedlar (ie a street trader)
and shows his lady his love as if he were selling her his wares
Fine knacks for ladies, cheap, choice, brave and new, –
excellent trinkets for ladies (my love is represented by these)
Good pennyworths but money cannot move, – they would actually cost quite a lot
but I know that money cannot buy you love (hey the Beatles pinched that one!)
I keep a fair but for the fair to view,
I have a stall in a market (or fair)
but my goods (ie love) are only for the beautiful (fair) to see

A beggar may be liberal of love.
I may be a beggar but I can give my love away free!
Though all my wares be trash, the heart is true.
These tinker’s trinkets are rubbish but my love is loyal
Great gifts are guiles and look for gifts again,
You may get expensive gifts from richer suitors,
but such generosity only gives rise to greed
My trifles come as treasures from my mind,
accept my trinkets, they are precious and
their value is purely spiritual love
It is a precious jewel to be plain,
The jewels of others are mere tawdriness,
my jewels are plain but all the more valuable because they come from true love
Sometimes in shell the Orient’s pearls we find.
Effectively the same meaning as previous line
(referring to the roughness of the oyster’s shell and the beautiful pearl within!
Of others take a sheaf, of me a grain.
You may get riches from other suitors, but what you’ll get
from me is not much materially (but lots in love)
Within this pack pins, points, laces and gloves,
And diverse toys fitting a country fair,
back to the tinker motif…
(and by the way, be sure to sing the first line staccato in this verse!)
But in my heart, where duty serves and loves,
Turtles and twins, Court’s brood, a heav’nly pair.
Now this is the most difficult couplet because I don’t recall who the courtly twins were:
some people at the court of queen Elizabeth I, I expect,
or possibly someone at court was born under the sign of Gemini and is being referred to slyly in the song?.
Turtles are of course turtledoves, which represent love because they coo so much!
Happy the man that thinks of no removes.
Similar to Voltaire’s “cultivons notre jardin” –
let us be happy where we are and not concern ourselves with going to,
and winning favour at, the Royal Court.