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The ‘Theban jars’ which the lively, dotted opening mentions, are the wars of Thebes, and the ‘rattling numbers’, which Purcell sets to a lively, dotted roulade that rises rhythmically up the vocal scale, refer to classical poetic metre. ‘Whilst I, in soft and humble verse’ is a contrast in metre, key and style, lyrical and somewhat regretful; this particular defeat of Anacreon, as we later learn, was not a military one. The third section returns to a blustering, military style as we learn that it is not ‘fleets at sea’, nor ‘ranks and files of infantry’ that have vanquished the poet, and Purcell provides further characterization for the confident warrior by adding repeated cries of ‘No, no, no, no’. Only in the last bars, as the tempo and style radically change, do we hear that it is not even ‘All your artillery companies’ that have caused defeat; it is those ‘encamp’d in killing eyes’ (that is, the looks – and worse – of ladies). The overt sexual overtones of the last line (‘Each dart his mistress shoots, he dies’) require no explanation!
from notes by Robert King © 2003