Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, by Brenda Smith

Brenda Smith

I feel stuck in a canticle like Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition of “Scarborough Fair.” Not only does the refrain of “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” floats through my head on a constant recurring and refreshing breeze, and the alternate lines that they inserted worm their way in, too, but they aren’t a refreshing breeze. They are a reminder of the constant fight between love and it’s counterpart. Now whether hate or indifference is that counterpart, I won’t debate here. The idea of a melody of life with its ever-present undercurrent of downs to steady the ups—that is the issue here.

At first our minstrels weave the tale of true love, “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?”, followed by the haunting recurrent, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.” Then: “Remember me to one who lives there. She once was a true love of mine. Tell her to make me a cambric shirt. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Without no seams, nor needlework.” The first in the singer’s list of impossible tasks he demands. He goes on to list others like cultivating the elusive land that appears between the foamy waves and the dry sand, or reaping the harvest with a sickle of leather. He admits after naming even more tasks that these are impossible, as true love often asks for the impossible, but if his once true love will at least attempt these feats, and then return to him and ask for his hand (the woman being the asker is another unthinkable task for the Middle Ages), then she’ll be a true love of his once again. Then they will marry. A dreamy yearning of a jilted lover perhaps? Yes, perhaps, but without the dreaminess that love brings, all that we have left is stark reality.

Hauntingly between it all: “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…” In the days of the song’s writing, these fragrant herbs all had special meaning to the people of England. Parsley was used to take away the bitterness of a meal; it aided in digestion. Sage has been a symbol of strength for thousands of years. Rosemary stood for sensibility and prudence, and hence, female love. Rosemary is strong and tough, yet it grows slowly. Brides in England and other parts of Europe once wore, and sometimes still do wear, circlets of rosemary in their hair. Knights’ shields were emblazoned with images of thyme, the widely recognized emblem of courage. So, with every task the singer requests of his love, he re-emphasizes the traits that she must have. She hurt him once, but he will put aside his hurt and pain, if she soothes his bitterness (parsley), makes her love strong again (sage), wears the symbol of feminine love and matrimony (rosemary), and gets up the courage (thyme) to ask him to marry her.

A love song, a love song. Sweet is the tune, haunting the melody, revolutionary the theme. Does the singer’s dream have even half a chance of coming true?

In a strange quirk of the muse, be it genius or just a wandering thread of thought indulged, Paul Simon, the arranger, juxtaposes both on top of, and between the original lines of song, another song entirely. I had listened to this song ever since Simon and Garfunkel’s version came out in the 1960’s, and I am embarrassed to admit that I never even realized quite what was being said. I thought them ghost lyrics of the love song, like a round almost. But they are not. Here are those superimposed lines: A hill in the deep forest green/ tracing of sparrow on snow-crested brown/ blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain/ sleeps unaware of the clarion call. On the side of the hill a sprinkling of leaves/ washes the grave with silvery tears/ a soldier cleans and polishes a gun/ sleeps unaware of the clarion call. War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions/ a general orders his soldiers to kill/ and to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten.

Two stark images, two pictures painted. An innocent mountain child sleeping, unaware that war rages somewhere. In another spot, a graveyard perhaps, a soldier polishes his gun. But how can he be unaware of the clarion call? Or is he asleep to the purpose of his actions? Or is his conscience asleep from years of suppressing it as he fired his gun again and again, hitting straight and true his target, sending his enemy home to the earth? A cause, long ago forgotten. Are these two people, the child and the soldier, one and the same? Does the sprinkling of leaves wash across the grave where they lie?

The song ends with the refrain, “then she’ll be a true love of mine.” Does his true love await him? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?

The juxtaposition of love and war, a cause long ago forgotten, a love lost, an innocent child: all these images, taken together, are my mind these days. And this song haunts me daily. What am I about? Love, war? Do I not do battle every day in the classroom, sometimes struggling on to win for a cause I’ve long ago forgotten? Do I struggle on, dreaming for true love anyway? The parsley, the sage, the rosemary, the thyme. Their fragrance is as sweet and pungent as this song is bittersweet and ephemeral. And yet the ephemeral lives on. Still searching for true love. Soldiers still fighting for the forgotten cause.

3 comments on “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, by Brenda Smith

  1. Glenda Beall says:

    What an interesting essay on love and war. I love that song but really never listened to it so carefully. I will now. Thanks.

  2. Moonweaver says:

    I always wondered about the lyrics meaning and now you’ve intrigued me to dig deeper. I love history and can spend hours researching what would seem insignificant to others whom don’t understand. So here I go researching one of my favourite tunes and its history. I wonder if I’ll ever be found again..?
    wink emoticon
    I am grateful I stumbled upon your post. Gratitude xXx

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