In a garden so green

In a Garden so green, in a May morning,

Heard I my Lady pleen of paramours



The Forbes Cantus represents the development of printing technology and the evolution of sophisticated musical notation. The motivation behind the creation of a printed compendium of music is indicative of the refined didactic methods of the Aberdeen ‘sang scule’. In 1936, Charles Sandford Terry wrote an article in The Musical Quarterly describing and surveying the contents and the concordances of all three editions of the Forbes Cantus. Although Terry’s article is comprehensive, his value judgements are outmoded and, occasionally, scathing. [1]

Click here to view a digitised version of the third edition of the Forbes Cantus.

Forbes’s introduction is a lengthy panegyric extolling the musical virtues of the monarch and “other royal endowments worthy of so great a king” [2]. His comments are embellished with classical references:

as with the Ephesian Bee, he might contribute his little wax,
that silly bumb, to the hive of famous Bon-Accords common-well,
seeing he owes his native birth right to this famous place.

The reference to the ‘Ephesian Bee’ is not insignificant. Ephesus, the ancient Greek city, used a bee emblem on its coinage as well as on its hoplite soldiers’ shields. Possibly, Forbes’s use of this symbol implies that his individual contribution amounts to very little but as part of a larger whole, the Cantus will contribute to the legacy of Aberdeen. As well as demonstrating his knowledge of classical references, Forbes is hinting at a link to the city to Ephesus, which held one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Aberdeen, which buzzes with activity as a mercantile burgh town, is also being represented by the Cantus as a location for the study of the ‘divine science’ that is music. Of course, it could just be an innocent metaphor, but Forbes may be employing the use of a modesty topos, familiar in earlier Scottish prologues, letters and writings. By underplaying his capabilities, he is in fact demonstrating his knowledge and skill.

From its first line this lyric evokes images of a dense, verdant and hidden garden on a spring morning. In earlier medieval literature, the colour green has connotations with the supernatural and the month of May carries implications of fertility and sexual love.

The lyrics are framed by the singer, who has yet to be seen by his ‘lady’, irresistibly reminiscent of Dunbar’s narrator in The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo who “drew in derne” in a “gudlie grein garth, full of gay flouris” [3]. He hears her calling out to him, saying that he promised to meet her “amongst the flowrs”. She believes that he had broken his promise. The subsequent verses follow the lady’s complaint and inserts some classical and natural imagery reminiscent of fifteenth century aureate verse:

The skyes up springeth, the dew down dingeth,
The sweet Larks singeth their hours of prime.
Phebus up sprenteth

The speaker reveals himself to his lady and proclaims the virtues of eternal, youthful love:

then with us Lovers young
true love shall rest and reign,
solace shal sweetlie sing
for evermore.

This conclusion is another promise of steady and uninterrupted love. Overall, the song appears to be romanticising romance and idealising ‘true love’. However, the dialogue between the pair also provides advice for prospective lovers: “banish all jealousie”.

[1] Charles Sanford Terry, ‘John Forbes’s Songs and Fancies‘, The Musical Quarterly 22:4 (Oxford University Press, 1936), pp. 402-419.

[2] John Forbes, ‘Epistle Dedicatory’, Cantus, Songs and Fancies (Aberdeen, 1682), p. iii

[3] William Dunbar, ‘The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo’, The Mercat anthology of early Scottish literature, 1375-1707, eds. R.D.S. Jack and P.A.T. Rozendaal (Mercat Press, 1997), pp. 138-151, 138.