The ballad tells the story of Sir Patrick Spens being commissioned by the king of Scotland to go to Norway to bring the king's daughter home. This trip resulted in the boat sinking, and Patrick Spens and all his men drowning.
The ballad is told by an omniscient narrator who recounts the king's search for the best sailor of the sea and the answer from his knight: Sir Patrick Spens. The point of view then shifts to Spens when he opens the letter from the king requesting that he sail the seas and his laugh in response, for he knows that the seas are not safe to sail this time of year.
Then the narrator shifts to an observer's view describing the hats of the sailors floating in the sea, the same sailors who were loathe to wet their shoes. And lastly the narration focuses on the ladies of the lords and sailors who are waiting for their loved ones who will never return.