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What child is this (Greensleeves)


Sir. John Stainer

William Chatterton Dix


What child is this, who laid to rest,
   on Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
   while shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
   whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
haste, haste to bring him laud,
   the babe, the son of Mary.

Why lies he in such mean estate
   where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
   the silent Word is pleading.

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
   come, peasant, king, to own him;
the King of kings salvation brings,
   let loving hearts enthrone him.


WhatChildIsThis - Greensleeves arr Stainer

Created 15-Sep-08 Revised 20-Apr-09

What child is this

"Greensleeves" is a traditional English folk song and tune, a ground of the form called a romanesca.

A broadside ballad by this name was registered at the London Stationer's Company in 1580 as "A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves". It then appears in the surviving A Handful of Pleasant Delights (1584) as "A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves. To the new tune of Green sleeves." It remains debatable whether this suggests that an 'old' tune of "Greensleeves" was in circulation, or which one the familiar tune is. Many surviving sets of lyrics were written to this tune. The tune is also found in several late 16th century and early 17th century sources, such as Ballet's MS Lute Book and Het Luitboek van Thysius, as well as various manuscripts preserved in the Cambridge University libraries.

A widely-believed (but completely unproven) legend is that it was composed by King Henry VIII (14911547) for his lover and future queen consort Anne Boleyn. Anne, the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, rejected Henry's attempts to seduce her. This rejection is apparently referred to in the song, when the writer's love "cast me off discourteously." However, it is most unlikely that King Henry VIII wrote it, as the song is written in a style which was not known in England until after Henry VIII died.

It is widely thought that Lady Green Sleeves was at the very least a promiscuous young woman and perhaps a prostitute. At this time, the word "green" also had sexual connotations, most notably in the phrase "a green gown", a reference to the way that grass stains might be seen on a lady's dress if she had made love outside. An alternative explanation is that Lady Green Sleeves was, as a result of her attire, incorrectly assumed to be immoral. Her "discourteous" rejection of the singer's advances quite clearly makes the point that she is not.

On page 500 of Nevill Coghill's translation of The Canterbury Tales Coghill explains that "green [for Chaucer’s age] was the color of lightness in love. This is echoed in "Greensleeves is my delight" and elsewhere."


Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.

Your vows you've broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.

I have been ready at your hand,
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both wagered life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.

If you intend thus to disdain,
It does the more enrapture me,
And even so, I still remain
A lover in captivity.

My men were clothed all in green,
And they did ever wait on thee;
All this was gallant to be seen,
And yet thou wouldst not love me

Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
but still thou hadst it readily.
Thy music still to play and sing;
And yet thou wouldst not love me.

Well, I will pray to God on high,
that thou my constancy mayst see,
And that yet once before I die,
Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.

Ah, Greensleeves, now farewell, adieu,
To God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true,
Come once again and love me.

 Early literary references

In Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, written around 1602, the character Mistress Ford refers twice without any explanation to the tune of "Greensleeves," and Falstaff later exclaims:

Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of 'Greensleeves'!
These allusions suggest that the song was well known at that time.


Greensleeves is in Dorian mode, though modern musicians sometimes play it in the natural minor scale instead.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Metasyntactic variable".

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