Understatement is a literary device, used especially in poetry, which serves to draw the readers' attention to something that should already be perfectly noticeable or obvious. It is kind of like exaggeration, its opposite, which sometimes shows itself as sarcasm or irony; understatement is often used to add an element of humor to the selection.
"Sir Patrick Spens" is a medieval Scottish ballad with no attributable author, and it tells the tragic story of a Scottish king who asks too much of an obedient subject. Many questions are never answered in the poem, but we do know that the king wants an experienced captain to sail his ship immediately; the most reliable fellow, he is told, is Sir Patrick Spens. Spens does not want to go, for it is the time of year when sailing is most dangerous, but he and his men embark on this journey. The ship is full of Scottish lords and, as expected, the ship goes down and all of the men die. Their wives, the noblewomen, will not see their husbands again.
There does not seem to be much room for humor in this tragic poem, yet there are some examples of understatement.
First, we meet the king as he is drinking wine, surrounded by the lords of his court. It does not seem like a scene which is frought with danger or desperation, yet he wants his best sailor to sail his ship for him immediately. The entire tone of the request, then, is a kind of understatement--a simple request (which he knows a loyal lord will obey) for an unknown reason to do something quite dangerous and risky.
Second, we meet Spens,
the best sailor
That sails upon the se [sea].
He is not in a fine home or attending some important event, but walking along the sand--a very understated setting for such a noble and skilled a man.
When he reads the king's letter, his first reaction is to laugh, but his second reaction is the understatement. He has read the request and knows, after a short moment of disbelief (the laughter) that he will have to do what his sovereign has requested. Though he knows he is probably not going to come back from this trip, a single tear "blinded his ee [eye]." That, of course, is an understated response to his own imminent death, as well as the deaths of his men.
Spens cheerfully tells his men they will be sailing in the morning, and obviously that cheerfulness is a kind of understatement, as they all know there is nothing to be "merry" about when it comes to this journey. One of the men (another understatement, as they all should have been expressing their concerns) says he has a bad feeling about this trip. He claims to have seen an omen in the sky,
"And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
That we will cum to harme.”
"Coming to harm" is a dramatic understatement, since the most likely harm they will come to at sea during this season is death by drowning.
The image we have of their death by drowning is also an understatement, as the only description we have of it is the sight of the men's hats bobbing on the surface. The description of the sailors' noble wives sitting and fanning themselves, then standing with their gold combs in their hair, is the final understatement, as that is the only picture we have of their grief. No crying, no tears, no mourning--just looking rich as they sit and fan themselves.
Understatement in this poem does not provide humor or comic relief for the reader; however, it does serve to intensify the horror of the tragedy in this ballad by its very lack of dramatic emotion or imagery.