Sir Patrick Spens Summary

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"Sir Patrick Spens" is a tragic ballad of Scotland. First published in 1765, it is probably much older than that date, probably by several centuries.  While a real Sir Patrick Spens has never been identified, it is possible there was a real thirteenth-century event involving the daughter of the King of Norway on which the poem is based.  But the importance of the actual events is not so great as the literary quality and the excellence of the ballad form in this poem

The story of the poem is broadly thus: The king of Scotland needs to fetch the daughter of the king of Norway from over the sea, and therefore needs a very good sailor to go and get her.  It is understood that this is a bad time of year for sailing (probably winter), and therefore the choice of captain ("skipper") of the ship would be put in considerable danger.  Some "eldern knight" at the Scottish court -- he is not named, specifically -- suggests the excellent sailor, Sir Patrick Spens.

The king's orders are brought to him while Sir Patrick is walking on a beach (the strand).  The first line of the letter makes him laugh, the second makes him weep ("The tear blinded his ee").  Sir Patrick rails against whoever suggested him "O who is this has done this deed,
Has told the King of me(?)", but he follows the order and goes to Norway.

While in Norway, he is criticized by the Norwegian knights for spending the money and abusing the hospitality of their king.  Again Sir Patrick protests, saying that he brought a great deal of silver ("white monie") and gold with him from Scotland.  But again Sir Patrick does as he is told, and embarks even though the weather and the phase of the moon are sore against him, threatening a storm.

Of course, when the ship is too far from land for succor, a fearful storm with lightning arises.  The sailors try to keep the sea out by stuffing the hole in the side of the ship with cloth, but the water comes in nevertheless.  The poet says wryly that the Scots lords were loath to get their cork-heeled shoes wet, but, alas, their hats were soon to be drenched.  In other words, the ship sinks and all the people on board are drowned.  They lie forty miles off the coast of Aberdeen on the bottom of the sea.

This ballad, with its regular rhyme, musical Scots dialect, and dramatic build-up to a tragic ending, is a classic example of the form.  Ballads were almost always spoken or sung, and the literary form is meant to be enjoyed by hearing rather than by reading. The short, rhyming lines and stanzas of "Sir Patrick Spens" are easy to remember, and most people can remember one line verbatim, at least, after only one hearing.  It is a form that is exceedingly easy to memorize, and thus, easily remembered, becomes a part of the collective memory of its hearers.  The skillful building of suspense in the final stanzas of the poem, though the outcome is probably clear to most listeners and not a surprise, makes the ending that much more emotional for the hearers.  This popular form of poetry is still recited and composed today, in Scotland and many other cultures.

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