Away vaine warld

Away vaine warld bewitcher of my heart

My sorrow shawes my sinnes maks me to smart

Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross (fl. 1599–1631)


Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross, was the first Scottish woman to be published in print with her major work Ane Godlie Dreame, in 1603. ‘A comfortabill song, to the tune of Sall I let her go’, alternatively titled ‘Away vaine warld’, appears as a final text to conclude the longer work.

The tune of ‘Sall I let her go’ indicates Robert Jones’s ‘Farewell, dear love’ found in The First Booke of Songes or Ayres, no. 12 (1600). It is a secular madrigal for four voices, or a solo voice with lute accompaniment.

This is a good example of how tunes and songs travelled the length and breadth of the country;  The First Booke of Songes or Ayres was printed in London, and the tune of ‘Farewell, dear love’ reached Melville’s small parish in Fife.

Jones’s text of ‘Farewell, dear love’ laments the sorrow of a confused lover with a choice to make:

Shall I bid her go?
What and if I do?

Jones is demonstrating a common ailment of a broken-hearted individual – “there be many more, I fear not!” but the question of “shall I let her go?” arises again and again.

Melville rewrote sacred and reflective words for this plaintive tune which illustrates her homiletic approach to writing. The singer reflects

Quhat shall I do? Are all my pleasures past?
Shall worldlie lusts now take their leave at last?

The startlingly frank references to a sensuous, human love appear to be out with the teachings of the Calvinist doctrine. Melville’s understanding of the need to affirm and question the desires of humanity allows modern readers and singers to reappraise our contemporary understanding of the teachings and writings within and outwith the kirk . (Ane Godlie Dreame is similarly surprising in its (traditionally Catholic) dream allegory form. [1]) The strength and sensuality of the piece makes it an unexpectedly colourful piece to sing, and to interpret. Contemporary singers and readers have connected with ‘Away vaine warld’ in unprecedented ways; such as relating it to issues of mental health and gender neutrality.

[1] Sarah Dunnigan, ‘Scottish women writers, c.1560–c.1650’, A history of Scottish women’s writing, ed. D. Gifford and D. Macmillan (Edinburgh University Press, 1997), pp. 15–43, 20.