Friday, June 17, 2011

Morley's Barley: It's More than Soup!

Now Is the Month of Maying
Lyrics by Sir Thomas Morley, Published, 1595,

Now is the month of Maying, when merry lads are playing!
Fa la la la la!
Each with his bonny lass, upon the greeny grass
fa la la la la!
The Spring, clad all in gladness, doth laugh at Winter's sadness!
Fa la la la la!
And to the bagpipes’ sound, the nymphs tread out the ground!
Fa la la la la!
Fie! Then why sit we musing, youth’s sweet delight refusing?
Fa la la la la!
Say, dainty nymphs and speak! Shall we play barley break?
Fa la la la la!

A brief study of the quaint phrase in the song Now is the Month of Maying." Say, dainty nymphs and speak! Shall we play barley break?"The song is a light-hearted one about the return of spring. Most of the lyrics are still easily understood today, apart from that last line. Since this issue at hand this month is springtime fun,
I thought to examine "barley break" and discovered it was a game along the same lines as "Red Rover" and amongst children it could be very innocent.  Among adults playing for flirtation however, the connotation is a bit different, akin to "a roll in the hay".

How to play "Barley Break" also called "Last Couple in Hell"¹

You need:
  •     Three male-female pairs
  •     A game field divided in three
There should be one couple standing on the right side of the field, one couple standing on the left side of the field and the remaining couple standing in the middle (Hell)

The Object of the Game:

The middle couple in “Hell” tries to catch the others as they run past so that they have to be in Hell. That couple use their clasped hands to catch the others. If caught,
that couple goes to the middle of the field.

The game was well known enough to be mentioned in The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. In Act Four, Scene 3 the Jailer's Daughter says “Faith, I'll tell you: sometime we go to barley-break, we of the blessed."

According to Gerald Massey, Sonnet 144 is all about this very game, proving its popularity and widespread usage.²

SONNET 144 by William Shakespeare
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour'd ill.
To win me soon to hell*, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turn'd fiend
Suspect I may, but not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another's hell:
Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

From all that, in can be inferred that "Barley break" can be an innocent children's game or an adult game of flirtation and a metaphor for being captured by love. 


¹  Suzanne Lord  Music from the age of Shakespeare: a cultural history‎ (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), 156.

² Gerald Massey. The Secret Drama of Shakespeare's Sonnets 1888 Edition..
( (accessed 3/30/2010) 134-137. 

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