A Bunch of Thyme has a beautiful soothing melody that belies the dark message contained in the lyrics.
On the surface, the song is a sad but relatively straightforward story of a young maiden who loses her heart to a sailor.
Beneath the surface, however, the lyrics contain double meanings referring to sex and possibly even sexual disease, and the loss of hope for the future.
The song begins with a warning to maidens not to let a “man steal away your thyme”.
Thyme equals virginity, hope and the future
The Bunch of Thyme is generally described as being a euphemism for the girl’s virginity. This is true but the true meaning is much broader than that.
Thyme represents the girl’s purity and consequently it represents her hopes and prospects for future happiness.
The song dates back at least as far as the 17th century. Life would have been difficult in those days for a girl who had lost her innocence.
Her chances of marriage would be greatly reduced and she might be a social outcast.
For thyme, it is a precious thing
This is why the girl refers to thyme as such a “precious thing” that brings all things to her mind – all the flavours and joys that life has to offer.
When the sailor stole her thyme, he didn’t just rob her of her virginity, he also robbed her of her hopes and dreams for the future
She not only laments that he has betrayed her, she also laments that hopes for the future have been closed down.
The sailor gave to me a rose
Like the rest of the song, the final verse can be taken in different ways.
The girl tells us that the sailor gave her a rose to remind her of when he stole away her thyme. This can be taken as a bitter sweet gesture to keep alive the memory of their brief encounter.
However, it can also have a darker meaning – referring the fact that he infected her with syphilis when he took her virginity.
The girl mentions that the “rose” would never decay. Syphilis was incurable at that time so the girl would have no hope of recovery, which would further explain why she has been robbed of her future.
A Bunch of Thyme has many variations
There are several variants on A Bunch of Thyme to be found all over the world.
Its influence can be seen in the most unlikely places, such as the blues tune Worries on My Mind by Moon Mullican. The ballad, The Seeds of Love, is very similar and also uses symbolic language to represent virginity and innocence.
Christy Moore recorded A Bunch of Thyme on his album, Whatever Tickles Your Fancy.