Corfu Love Couplets *


Corfu is rich in folklore, and Corfiote folksongs are still sung today at village festivals, at wedding parties, and in taverns. Lawrence Durrell in his book about Corfu, Prospero’s Cell, recommends as the best village festivals those at Gastouri, Kastellani, Analypsis, Pantokratoras and Kassiopi. Some of the couplets in this collection are still sung there. Folksongs were composed by unknown poets during the last ten centuries or so. Some of them are sung to the  accompaniment of dancing and some are recited.

Greek folksongs, which were so much admired by Goethe, who translated some of them, are characterized by  their poetical freshness and simplicity. There are various kinds of folksongs: heroic, historical, songs of exile, love songs, love couplets (distichs), lullabies, songs sung at work and dirges. The love couplets are anonymous compositions. Some of them were sung, or even composed, by village women extempore as they worked in groups, often picking olives under the olive trees of the island of Corfu. One woman would begin the first line of a couplet and another would continue where the first left off and complete it. Singing during work alleviated much of the pain and tedium that went into the back-breaking work in those days at picking olives from the ground. In the same way black slaves composed Negro spirituals when they were  picking cotton in the southern American states.

I have collected these songs from various villages on the island. They are written in the fifteen-syllable iambic metre, the national pattern of Modern Greek poetry.  In rendering them into English I have tried to retain the meaning and the simplicity of the style of the original.

From the Corfu garden of folksongs I have picked the most fragrant ones, the love couplets, and made a small bouquet,this anthology, to offer to visitors to our island.

P. K.

Angelica, sugar-sweet, Angelica honey-sweet;
Angelica, spring-cold water that the angels drink!
Angels of heaven, I pray you, help me,
for I am aflame and burning for another’s offspring.
An angel descended and with his golden paint brush
sat and painted your red lips.
Nightingale of the garden, nightingale and peahen,
when I turn to look at you, my blood is chilled.
I’m not dead yet, but they’ve lit candles as if I were,
for they have snatched my love from my embrace.
Open your red lips, my dove,
and promise me that you’ll be mine.
Whether you’re the Mayor’s sister or not,
I shall kiss you, though I go to prison for it!
Holy Virgin, if you wish me to sing your praises for ever,
bring back my love so I may cease to sigh.
Last night I was picking roses and you, my dearest, flowers;
last night I dreamt of you and lost my sleep.
Of all stars in the sky only one resembles you:
the one that shines at break of day.
What may be the cause of this pain in the heart?
If it be not love, what else may it be?
Out of the earth comes water, from the olive tree comes oil,
and from a good mother comes the stalwart lad.
Ah, heaven, rain no more, do me that favour;
for I water the medow with my tears.
I wish to equip a boat with forty-two oars;
and man it with sixty brave hearts that I may carry you off one night.
Broad-leafed basil plant from England,
that beautiful girls do sport on holidays.
I’ve planted basil in the lime-pit,
so my love might pass by and say, ‘‘Christ is risen!’’.
I’ve planted basil by the bed you sleep in,
that you may pick it, smell it, and remember me.
Were you a queen, you could not be more graceful:
the finest bloom of all the girls, the pride of all around.
Queen of the girls I must declare you,
for your beauty makes me marvel at you.
Time and again I waken at midnight with a yearning
and roundly curse the grim land of my exile.
Mountains, grow not verdant; birds, sing not:
for my love has renounced me, so mourn you all.
My red carnation, my carnation spray,
if I don’t hold you in my arms, may Charon come for me!
Just see, what a time for Charon to chose to come for me:
now I’m in love with the branch of a lemon tree!
Tell me what good it’s done you to torment me?
Cease your heartlessness and tell me what your terms are.
I wander hither, I wander thither, in case I chance upon you,
to tell you of my woes, so you may quench the fire that consumes me.
Turn and look at Heaven, turn and look at me:
if I turn my back on Heaven, I’ll turn my back on you.
Teacher, teacher, let Helen out of class,
so I may see her for a moment, for I’m dying to see her.
Don’t you remember, curse on you, that we agreed
you’d take me and I’d take you and we would live together?
Come, let me kiss you, and then go quickly,
that none may see you and say you love me.
Come, let me kiss you, and then you kiss me too,
and if I let on, then you let on too.
It is my destiny, whenever I fall in love,
I am forced to fight with snakes and serpents.
You went abroad and left me three glasses of poison,
to drink a drop every morning when I wash.
You went abroad and the place became a desert island;
Come back, my dove, that it regains its jollity.
I planted a tree with tears this many a year,
but instead of fruit it has caused me trials, bitterness, pain.
I have loved you for sixty months, that is, five years;
had I planted a lemon tree, I would be picking lemons.
I fell in love with someone beyond my reach,
and I shall suffer for it till I die.
You, of this opinion, and I of this mind,
let us see who will fall at the other’s feet.
It was my fate to fall in love with you,
to suffer so much torture and not to gain you.
Be patient, my dove, so I may be hopeful;
in time every tree blossoms and bursts into leaf.
I have not seen you for three days: it’s nigh upon a week,
and the food in my mouth has lost its flavour.
I wish I were a handsome lad and valiant too,
and were as well a singer: I’d want no other gifts.
Love without jealousy is dour and dreary;
like wine turned to vinegar, like an empty purse.
Love is a needle that pierces the heart;
it has pierced mine too and I know no remedy.
Love pierces iron and shatters marble;
both cleric and layman are moonstruck by it.
The white stone on the beach gathers no moss;
and love without quarrels has no savour.
Orphanhood, marriage, love and exile:
they weighed all four, exile was the heaviest.
A calm sea does not toss a ship about,
and love that’s trouble free never ceases.
I weep in secret for I do not want anyone to know
that my past troubles have revisited me.
The time when we shall meet draws near;
when we shall be together and comfort one another.
Maiden, since you’ve captivated my mind, now make me captive, too;
What good am I mindless to my mother?
Would I were a cool breeze to get between the sheets
to caress your breasts that are like two lemons.
My lady, unsavoury, as vinegar and honey,
who would condescend to take you as his mate?
In sorrow, in sorrow, I’ll go and dig a grave
to bury my poor body, and the shame will be on you.
Take pity, have compassion for the tears I shed,
for they are more than the water that I drink.
Lift the spell, my light, and set me free
that I may go about my business, for marriage is not for me.
Even if you were the daughter of a witch, or a dragon’s child,
you would pity me who suffers night and day.
Your countenance is round as is a pearl
and the pupils of your eyes two gem stones.
My eyes, my joy, my grape-vine with an eagle’s claws,
how I wish I were the groom and you the bride!
I kissed a brunette on an August Monday,
and my breath was scented for one and forty days.
My little brunette, when you put on lipstick,
the dead and buried rise up from the Underworld.
You bathed in the snow and took on its whiteness;
and from the jasmine flowers you stole all their beauty.
I would reproach a girl who lives nearby,
who went and married without asking me.
Throughout my life I’ve loved but only one,
and, wretched me, I gave her both my mind and soul.
When you were young, I loved you, when older didn’t marry you,
but I hope to God I’ll marry you when you’re widowed.
I wish I were a golden button on your under bodice,
so that I could kiss your pearly breast!
I am weary of courting you, but I would be sorry to give you up;
let’s bear our longing for each other as long as we can.
I wish the mountains and the lemon-tree tops would lower themselves,
so I might see my love in the middle of Doukades.
Had I Solomon’s wisdom and David’s knowledge,
I would sing your praises till the break of day.
Night and day and every dawn you are in my thoughts;
be a doctor and cure this terrible sore of mine.
Golden tresses on her head arranged in perfect order
and every hair becomes a knife that slaughters me.
You went away and I fell ill; come back and I’ll be cured;
come as soon as possible, before I lay me down to die.
My dove, writing from a foreign land, I got your letter,
placed it in my bosom and said «My heart, refresh yourself!»
Awake, you who taught me what is love
and then made hell my inheritance while yet I live.
Awake, for Eros has come to crown you,
since no woman is more beautiful than you.
I’ve travelled the whole world, west and east,
but I have not seen such a face that sparkles like a diamond!
Whoever gets no fun from life should die,
for while he lives he takes up space in vain.
Whoever believes in what a woman says
is like catching hares on the sea and fishing on a hill.
When your mother gave you birth the sun came down
and dowered you with beauty and then rose up again.
Love at first is sweet as clotted cream,
but once is rooted in the heart, it spreads its poison.
The world and suffering are one,
how then can I be satisfied?
Who has ever seen a fish ashore or a sown sea?
Who has seen a true love nowadays?
What lovely lily gave you its whiteness,
and what apple tree, what golden apple tree, its rosy colour?
I rise at break of day and look at your house;
I gaze upon your window and sigh deep sighs.
Glance at me, give me some sweet hope;
such unconcern I have not seen before.
Eros gathered roses and thirty-petalled roses,
and flowers of paradise, and made of them your body.
If you don’t want me, fair lady, tell me so
that I may marry another, and so enjoy myself.
What need of the oil-lamp has your mother at night,
when she has a bright moon inside her house?
I send you greetings with a bitten apple,
and in its bite a kiss is hidden.
Shall I ever have the fortune of such happiness:
that we two rise from one pillow?
God alone knows my torments and my pain,
and a little brunette, should she wish, can cure them.
The flowers need the coolth, the cypresses the air;
our youth and life are not for ever.
My eyes have never seen so good a woman;
if I ask her for one kiss, she gives me ten!
I wish I had the combings of your golden hair
to give to a goldsmith to fashion finger-rings.
Your red lips are like a cherry,
and the young man who kissed them will never age.
I am so used to troubles that I do not care;
I trim my sails according to their weather.
The tree I admired on ordinary days and holidays
stretched its branches over another’s garden.
Sweet, sweetest sleep has possessed you and you are sleeping
with never a thought for your old love.
Bear, my poor heart, the words of her whom I do love,
as the mountains bear the gales and the snows.
Fire melts iron and the wood-worm eats up wood,
and you gnaw at my youth like a sick man an apple.
Christ is Risen, light of my eyes, come, let us kiss
and if you don’t like the kiss, then make the bed for us to sleep.
No more can a bird without air or a fish without water survive,
than a maid and a youth without love.
My tall cypress tree, your top in swaying,
and who will celebrate your beauty?
O lemon tree in blossom, o flowering violet,
you are the one who’s withered all the young men.


Ελληνικά / In Greek

Μαρτζούκος, Γ. Κ., Κερκυραϊκά Δημοτικά Τραγούδια, Αθήναι, 1959.
Πακτίτης, Ν., Κερκυραϊκά Δημοτικά Τραγούδια, Αθήνα, 1989.
Περάνθης, Μ., Μεγάλη Ελληνική Ανθολογία της Ποιήσεως, τόμ. Γ΄ [1970].

Αγγλικά / In English

Abbott, G. F., Songs of Modern Greece, Cambridge, 1900.
Pym, Hilary, Songs of Greece, The Sunday Times, London, 1968.


Authentic Music from the Greek Isles and Mountains, Fontana TL 5323.
Folk Dances of Greece, Folkways P 454.
Greek Island and Mountain Songs, Vogue MDEVR 9329.

* Lecture held in English at the Center for Greek Studies at the University of Florida, USA, on April 15, 1987. Delivered with a few changes in the journal Λαογραφία Folklore, Bulletin of Greek Folklore Society , Volume LTH (39) 1998-2003, p. 405-421.