One version of "Sir Patrick Spens" replaces lines 37-40 with the following stanza:  the ladies crack's their fingers white, the maidens tore their hair, a' for the sake o' their true loves, for...

One version of "Sir Patrick Spens" replaces lines 37-40 with the following stanza: 

the ladies crack's their fingers white,

the maidens tore their hair,

a' for the sake o' their true loves,

for them they ne'er saw mair.

Which version is more effective?

In that same version of the ballad, the stanza that about the king (lines 41-44) precedes the stanzas about the ladies (lines 33-40). Which version makes a better conclusion? 

What are some examples of understatement (or, in a slightly different way of putting it, things unsaid) in this ballad?

Asked on by kai0612

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Medieval ballads like "Sir Patrick Spens" were originally sung by traveling scops who sang these poems at feasts and banquets. Because this poem was written in what we call the oral tradition, the written versions of the poem do not always match perfectly; it is always interesting to see the variances between translations and to consider the impact of those changes on meaning. 

The two stanzas you mention are both found at the end of the narrative. The Scottish king has requested that the best sailor in his kingdom, Sir Patrick Spens, sail his ship, even though the weather is not conducive to a successful journey. The noble Spens only hesitates for a moment, despite the fact that he knows this is likely to be his last voyage. Next we see the hats of Spens and his crew of noblemen, floating on the top of the water after they have drowned. The final two images of the poem are the wives of the noblemen, ladies waiting in their finery for their husbands who are never coming home to them, and Spens , surrounded by his noblemen, fifty fathoms deep.

The first stanza you mention is not found in most traditional versions of the poem. The traditional  stanza reads this way:

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

We see rich, noble ladies (as evidenced by the gold combs in their hair) standing and waiting for something that will never happen--their husbands will never come home. Coupled with the image in the preceding stanza, these same ladies sitting and fanning themselves as they wait for their husbands, we derive a calmness and a tragic sense of the unknown. While they fan and while they stand and watch, there is still hope.

In the non-traditional stanza you mention in your question, we get an altogether different portrayal of these noble widows:

the ladies crack's their fingers white,
the maidens tore their hair,
a' for the sake o' their true loves,
for them they ne'er saw mair. 

This is certainly a much more dramatic image of grief, and that may have played well with banquet-goers who wanted to be entertained by a good story. It appeals to the senses in a way that the original does not, and some people may prefer that. The more traditional and sedate version of the women is understated (which addresses the third part of your question), but it is just as tragic as the wringing hands and torn hair. Some people will appreciate that quiet, understated grief to the loud and rather obvious grief.

As to whether it is more effective to have the traditional version's final stanza before the stanzas depicting the grieving women, that is also a matter of choice. The stanza reads:

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

It works well before the picture of the women, since it follows the image of the floating hats and makes the point that the men are, indeed gone. The last image, then, is of the tragically grieving women.

A case could also be made that it works better at the end for two reasons. First, it confirms that the men the women are waiting for are, indeed, at the bottom of the ocean. In a sense, then, these nobleman sailors have come home, the final resting place for many unlucky sailors. Second, it is a kind of mirror of the first stanza. Just as the king sits with his Scots noblemen at his feet, so does the brave and noble Sir Patrick Spens. 

Sources:

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