“Lord Randall,”a traditional Scottish ballad, has a refrain which changes in the middle of the poem.  Identify the change.How does this...

“Lord Randall,”a traditional Scottish ballad, has a refrain which changes in the middle of the poem.  Identify the change.

How does this change affect the interpretation of the poem?

You can find the poem here:


Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the oldest traditional ballads in British poetry, it is thought that "Lord Randall" may have been Randolph, sixth earl of Chester, who was poisoned by his wife in1232.

Randall returns from hunting, and his mother notices that he is apparently not feeling well.  Solicitously, she asks him how where he has been, and then "What did she give you, Lord Randal, my son?"  Unwilling to respond with the truth because of his noble character, Lord Randall repeats his refrain four times.  However, the loving mother notices his increasing weakness and reveals her worst fear that he has been poisoned.  Deathly ill and in the confidence of his mother, Lord Randall admits to the poisoning and reveals his true feelings by changing his refrain of "For I'm wearied wi huntin and fain wad lie down" to

For I'm sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.


Poisoned by his wife--or, at any rate, his love--Lord Randall is made both deathly ill and heartbroken that the woman has such malevolence toward him that she would poison him.  When the mother asks what her dying son is leaving to his brother and sister and herself, he sheds all form of gentility and tells her also that to the woman he is leaving her "hell and fire."


lit24 | Student

The presence of refrains- a word, phrase, or a line which is repeated usually at the end of each stanza - clearly proves that the traditional medieval ballad belonged to the oral tradition of poetry . In most ballads the refrain performs only a euphonic function, that is, it creates a pleasant musical effect and is a cue for the contemporary audience to join in in the singing. In "Lord Randall," however the refrain does not have a melodic purpose. It performs the important semantic function of conveying to the contemporary audience and the readers of today the important information that Lord Randall is weary and exhausted after his  hunting trip and that he would like to lie down and take rest:

For I'm wearied wi huntin, and fain wad lie down.

This refrain which is repeated at the end of the first five stanzas of the poem is changed to,

For I'm sick at the heart, and fain wad lie down.

at the end of the sixth stanza, and is repeated  thereafter at the end of each of the remaining stanzas till the end of the ballad.

Presumably, when Lord Randall had rested to refresh himself during his hunt he had eaten the food- "eels fried in a pan" - 
which had been poisoned by his lover. His horses and his hawks and his hounds had also been fed the same poisoned food and they are now dead. He had staggered home all the way from the forest to his castle - the reason why he is so exhausted.  His mother now wants to know why he has returned home walking and what has happened to his horses and his hunting train. Perhaps, to avoid the embarrassment of revealing to his mother that his "true-love" had proved unfaithful and poisoned him he is evasive in the first five stanzas and does not reveal to his mother that he is heart broken at being cheated by his "true-love" - "I'm sick at the heart."

But, even after his mother has guessed correctly at the beginning of the sixth stanza that he has been poisoned he does not reveal to her straightaway that it was his "true-love" who has poisoned him. Only in the last stanza he reveals the truth to his mother and curses his "true-love" and dies.

The last four stanzas are an example of what is known as the nuncupative testament -  an oral statement of the will made by a dying person.  It is used with devastating ironical effect at the end of the poem when the emotionally shattered Lord Randall dies cursing his "true-love" who has deceived him:

I leave her hell and fire