Jan 7 Anonymous: Sir Patrick Spence: Traditional Scottish Ballad

So, today, I do have what I had termed an epic poem or referred to as a ballad, I have what the textbook terms a “narrative poem”, very simply put a poem that tells a story. In the epic we have a narrative poem that tells a very, long, sweeping story – it could even be termed an important story in some sense, perhaps in that a culture may consider it a story that helped shape who they are today (whether or not they are certain it actually happened), so we have stories like the Iliad, the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, La Mort D’Arthur, Beowulf and others.

A ballad, on the other hand is a storytelling song though romance is often attached to it (or perhaps romantic sentiments), usually of a hero’s journey – I often think of the tale of Robin Hood as an example.

An example of a ballad is this next one, a traditional Scottish Ballad. It must be known in Scotland, but like the American ballads of John Henry, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox or Johnny Appleseed, the teller of the tale is unknown and they are simply characters who walk among the imagination of the people of that land an example of who their (or our) people are. And, like Bunyan, are embellished to the point that they are larger than life.

Sir Patrick Spence

The king sits in Dumferling toune,
Drinking the blude-reid wine:
“O whar will I get guid sailor
to sail this schip of mine””

Up and spak an edern knicht,
Sat at the kings richt kne:
“Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor
That sails upon the se.”

The king has written a braid letter,
And signed it wi’ his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,
Was walking on the sand.

The first line that Sir Patrick red,
A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Parick red,
The teir blinded his ee.

“O wha” is this has done this deid,
This ill deid don to me,
To send me out this time o’ the yeir,
To sail upon the se!

“Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
Our guid schip sails the morne.”
“O say na sae, my master deir,
For I feir a deadlie storme.

“Late late yestreen I saw the new moone,
Wi’ the auld moone in hir arme,
And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
That we will cum to harme.”

O our Scots nobles wer richt laith
To weet their cork-heild schoone,
Bot lang owre a’ the play were playd,
Their hats they swam aboone.

O lang, lang may their ladies sit,
Wi’ their fans into their hand,
Or ere they se Sir Patrick Spence
Cum sailing to the land.

O lang, lang may the ladies stand,
Wi’ their gold kems in their hair,
Waiting for their ain der lords,
For they’ll se thame na mair.

Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
It’s fiftie fadom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence,
Wi’ the Scots lards at his feit.

The poem is medieval so the language is a little difficult. The book had given a key to some of the words: wha = who, sae = so, laith = loath, weet = wet, schoone = shoes, owre = before, aboone = above (their heads), ere = before, kems = combs, ain = own, haf owre = halfway over.

I get the feeling from this poem that there is an understood historical context that for an outsider, like myself, makes the poem cryptic. I liken this to the Ballad of John Henry, where you must understand the background of the American Industrial Revolution in order to understand why it is so important for John Henry to take on the mining machine and to win. There is even a subtle hint of the abolitionist cause in the song as if to say, “look at what a hero the black man is to humanity.”

I like this Ballad a lot, it has that fairy tale quality that the many medieval poems have and can be looked at many different ways. It’s disconcerting to have the story be so sparse, especially in a time when the exposition has become all too common place: we are spoiled by our modern narrative having it spoon fed to us (even Reality Shows require writers to explain to us what exactly is happening).

There is a definite sense in this story of imbalance between the King and Sir Patrick Spence who cries out, “who has done this ill deed to me!” He’s being compelled to sail at the worst time of year, and, as in most ancient stories, it is a fate he cannot avoid (even the moon is predicting his fated demise). But who is sinking the ship (certainly not the King with his blood red wine)? Is the King so very all powerful? Why are the nobles sailing with Sir Patrick? (A plot on the part of the king?) Why does Sir Patrick go so quickly from laughter to tears? And what is compelling him forward? Perhaps it’s something we’ll never quite discover, or maybe it’s something we already know. (I’d like to thank the textbook for some of these questions.)

Note: thanks to the magic of the internet, I was able to find a different version of this poem which suggests a reason for the voyage, but it still cryptic as to the rest of the questions that come up about it. I do not have a key for the words in this, so, like me, you’ll have to ferret out the script as best you can.

The king sits in Dunfermline toun,
Drinkin’ the bluid red wine
‘0 whaur will I get a skeely skipper,
To sail this ship o’ mine?’

Then up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king’s richt knee,
‘Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor,
That ever sail’d the sea.’

Our king has written a braid letter,
And seal’d it wi’ his han’,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,
Was walkin’ on the stran’.

‘To Noroway, to Noroway,
To Noroway owre the faim;
The king’s dochter o’ Noroway,
It’s thou maun bring her hame.’

The first line that Sir Patrick read,
Sae lond, loud laughed he;
The neist line that Sir Patrick read,
The tear blinded his e’e.

‘O wha is this has dune this deed,
And tauld the king o’ me,
To send us oot at this time o’ the year
To sail upon the sea?

Be’t wind, be’t weet, be’t bail, be’t sleet,
Our ship maun sail the faim;
The king’s dochter o’ Noroway,
It’s we maun fetch her hame.’

They boys’d their sails on Mononday,
Wi’ a’ the speed they may;
They hae landed in Noroway
Upon a Wodnesday.

* * * * *

‘Mak ready, mak ready, my merry men a’,
Our guid ship sails the morn,’
‘0 say na sae, my maister dear,
For I fear a deidly storm.

I saw the new moon late yestreen,
Wi’ the auld moon in her arm,
And I fear, I fear, my maister dear,
That we will come to harm.

They had na sail’d a league, a leagne,
A league but barely three,
When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud,
And gurly grew the sea.

The ankers brak, and the tapmasts lap,
‘Twas sic a deidly storm
And the waves cam owre the broken ship,
Till a’ her sides were torn.

* * * * *

Gae fetch a wab o’ the silken claith,
Anither o’ the twine,
And wap them to our guid ship’s side,
That the saut sea come na in.

They fetch’d a wab o’ the silken claith
Anither o’ the twine,
And they wapp’d them round that guid ship’s side,
But still the sea cam in!

O laith, laith were our guid Scots lords,
To weet their cork-heel’d shoon;
But lang or a’ the play was play’d,
They wat their hats aboon.

And many was the feather bed,
That flauchter’d on the faim;
And mony was the guid lord’s son,
That never mair cam hame!

The ladyes wrang their fingers white,
The maidens tore their hair,
A’ for the sake o’ their true loves,-
For them they’ll see nae mair!

O lang, lang may the ladyes sit,
Wi’ their fans into their han’,
Before they see Sir Patrick Spence
Come sailin’ to the stran’!

O lang, lang may time maidens sit,
Wi’ their gowd kaims in their hair,
A’ waiting for their ain dear loves,-
For them they’ll see nae mair!

It’s forty miles frae Aberdeen,
And fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies guid Sir Patrick Spence,
Wi’ the Sects lords at his feet!

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About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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