What is the theme of the traditional  ballad  "Sir Patrick Spens"?

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dymatsuoka eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are a number of themes which are explored in the poem.  Prominent among these are the themes of loyalty, suffering and loss, and courage.

Loyalty is a central theme as it relates to both Sir Patrick and his crew.  When Sir Patrick is ordered by the king to go to sea, he is aware that it is a dangerous time of year for sailing, yet he promptly obeys.  His men also acquiesce without protest, because they are loyal to Sir Patrick.

The theme of suffering and loss common to the human condition is also explored in the poem.  The impact of the tale comes from the tragic loss of an exceptional man in Sir Patrick Spens, and the finality of the destruction of the ship and everyone aboard.  There is a sense of universality in Sir Patrick's lament when he says, "O wha is this has done this deed, this ill deed done to me".

The theme of courage is developed through the noble character of Sir Patrick.  He is a better man than the lords, who do not want to get "their fancy cork-heeled shoes" wet even aboard ship, and has more substance than the ladies, who are pictured as idly rich, insensitive, and demanding.  The steadfast bravery with which Sir Patrick submits to the king's command and performs his duty even to the face of death might be representative of the courage human individuals must demonstrate in facing whatever trials come their way.

lit24 | Student

"Sir Patrick Spens"(58)  is from Francis James Child's collection "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads" (1882-98).

The story is very familiar to all lovers of English poetry. It narrates the the story of the skilful and  brave sailor Sir Patrick Spens who readily sacrifices his life inorder to bring home the Scottish  princess from Norway.

some of the important themes are:

1. Obedience and courage : Even though Sir Patrick Spens knew that it would be suicidal attempting to cross the North Sea in winter he obeys the orders of the Scottish King immediately:"Be it wind, be it wet, be it hail, be it sleet,/Our ship must sail the foam."

2. Patriotism and loyalty: When he arrives in Norway the Norwegian lords complain that the Scots are a financial burden to the Norwegian government. At once Sir Patrick Spens defends the Scottish king:"For I brought as much as the white monie/As gane my men and me/And half - fou of the red gowd/Out o'er the sea with me." 

3. Tragedy and fate:  As soon as Sir Patrick Spens receives the King's letter ordering him to sail to Norway he has a premonition that  he will die:"The next line that Sir Patrick read/The tear blinded his eye." Fate had  already destined that this voyage would be Sir Patrick's last.