Saturday, 14 November 2009

The Willow Song

The bulk of this post is taken from John Launer here.

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song ...
(Psalm 137)

The poore Soule sat sighing by a Sicamour tree,
Sing all a greene Willough:
Her hand on her bosome, her head on her knee,
Sing Willough, Willough, Willough,
The fresh Streames ran by her, and murmur’d her moanes,
Sing Willough &c.,
Her fast teares fell from her, and softened the stones,
Sing Willough, Willough, Willough ...(Othello, Act IV, scene 4)

I was sceptical that you could hang any kind of harp on a weeping willow, even if—as was presumably the case here—your instrument was more like a Welsh harp than a concert one. Of course, the passage is meant to be figurative rather than literal, and it has its counterpart in Psalm 126 when the exiles return to Zion with songs of joy.

A song of ascents.

1 When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed.

2 Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."

3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.

4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negev.

5 Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.

6 He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.

As it happens, willows (aravim in Hebrew) appear six or seven times in the bible, generally as ‘willows of the brook’. However, modern commentators seem to agree that the aravim mentioned in the Psalm 137 are not in fact willows at all but Populus euphratica.

This is a kind of poplar native to Iraq, apparently similar in some ways to our own black poplar. It has two different kinds of leaves—long pedunculated ones as well as deltoid ones—and this may explain why it was regarded as a willow. Poplars and willows are closely related anyway, and people in biblical times may not have distinguished one from the other. And who knows, maybe the psalm was written by a Jerusalemite who had never actually been to Babylon or looked at the trees there very closely.

Populus euphratica appears in only one other place in the bible, in the prophecies of Ezekiel. There it has a different name—tsaftsafah, which is thought to be onomatopoeic, echoing the characteristic rustling of the leaves. For Ezekiel, the tree symbolized the deep-rooted imperial power of Babylon. This certainly adds some poignancy to the image of hanging up your harp in despair.

However, if you look more closely at Desdemona's song, it leads to some more arboreal surprises and pleasures. For a start, the tree in the song, like the biblical one, cannot have been a weeping willow either. They were unknown in Europe until they were imported from China at the beginning of the eighteenth century: the Chinese connection is commemorated in the willow pattern plate, designed in 1779. Popular myth attributes the first weeping willow grown in Britain to Alexander Pope, who is said to have planted a budding wand from a basket containing figs that a Turkish lady admirer had given him. A later inhabitant of Pope's villa in Twickenham then cut it down, to deter tourists who came especially to gawp at it.

It was Linnaeus who gave the tree its Latin designation Salix babylonica, also on the mistaken assumption that it was the psalmist's tree. The English term ‘weeping willow’ was first used around the same time, presumably because of the psalm as well, although the description might be justified by the tree's drooping appearance alone. Ironically, most weeping willows nowadays are not the real thing, but a hardier hybrid with the native white willow Salix alba.

Which brings us, finally, to the sycamore, and the intriguing question of why the poor soul in Desdemona's song should sit by a sycamore but sing about willows. Part of the answer, apparently, is that the sycamore is not a sycamore either, or at least not the familiar Acer pseudoplatanus, or English maple, that we now mistakenly call a sycamore. Instead, the song refers to the mulberry fig, Ficus sycomorus, which appears many times in the bible as a symbol of rejuvenation, but seems, by Shakespeare's time, to have acquired an association with infidelity—not that anyone is suggesting for one moment that there is a link between the two.
The ironic contrast with Desdemona's position, as a faithful wife about to be murdered by a pathologically jealous husband, would probably not have been lost on the audience.
The Willow Song
The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree
Sing all a green willow
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee:
Sing willow, willow, willow, willow!
Sing willow, willow, willow, willow!
My garland shall be;
Sing all a green willow, willow, willow, willow
Sing all a green willow
My garland shall be.
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmer'd her moans
Sing willow, willow, willow
Her salt tears fell from her and soft'ned the stones.
Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve
Sing willow, willow, willow
He was born to be fair, I to die for his love,
I call'd my love false love but what said he then?
Sing willow, willow, willow
If I court more women, you'll couch with more men.
They might also have understood why an encounter with a sycamore (which also sounds remarkably like ‘a sick Moor’, not to mention ‘a sick amour’) might lead a woman to bemoan her fate under a willow. Certainly, the association between willows, sadness, loss and weeping appears to have been fixed by then in the European mind, regardless of the botanical facts. But I won't harp on about that.

Our Willow, by the way, makes aspirin

Common Names: Willow
Latin Name: Salix spp.Parts Used: Bark, wood
Cultivation: Cuttings will root in moist soil. Start them where you want them to grow, as willows are difficult to transplant. Willows prefer soggy soil and full sun.
Cosmetic Uses: Decoctions of white willow bark make good facial astringents.
Magickal Uses: The willow tree is associated with the moon. Its wood is frequently used to make magick wands, and willow branches are used to bind a witch's besom. Use willow leaves in love mixtures, and carry them to guard against evil.
Medicinal Uses: Willow bark has been used for thousands of years to treat fevers and relieve the pain of headaches and arthritis. The bark contains salicin, the natural source of the chemicals used to make aspirin. It is also good for heartburn and digestive upsets (unlike aspirin, which can irritate your stomach).


  1. AndreaJanuary 13, 2010 at 2:34 AM
    A very interesting post, thank you. I'm writing a thesis on Othello, trying to compare the original version to Vigny's French translation. Anyway, is there any relationship between Desdemona's Willow Song and the song included in Percy's Relicks of ancient Poetry?


    AnonymousJanuary 16, 2010 at 9:07 PM
    Oh ..... I love the weeping willow tree, it has to be my favourite tree!

    1. what song is that? Want to put up the text?