Corinna is divinely fair
appears in the Gresham Manuscript, the book of songs and extracts from his theatre works and odes which Purcell compiled between 1692 and 1695. The volume is basically chronological, and this song appears just before extracts from the 1692 ode Hail, bright Cecilia
; it was also printed in the December 1692 issue of The Gentleman’s Journal
where the text was said to be ‘by a Person of Honour’. The second stanza ‘Like Nature’ may have been a later addition, for it appears in the Gresham Manuscript in a different ink and with new key and time signatures. This was probably not the version which John Young used when compiling the second edition of Orpheus Britannicus
(first book, 1706) as he does not print the second stanza.
Purcell is wonderfully responsive to the text, expressively illustrating the elegance of Corinna, whose shape is ‘easy’ and ‘soft her air’. But this paragon of beauty has, to Purcell’s author, wasted her charms and ‘sullied’ her looks, for she ‘threw’ her own heart away. In the second stanza, lilting in its triple metre, the poet likens her wasting her ‘treasure’ to exotic Eastern delicacies whose subtle flavours are lost before they can reach our shores – an imaginative way of an author truculantly expressing his jealousy that someone else has proved to be the lucky one!
from notes by Robert King © 2003