Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

No historical Sir Patrick Spens or Spence is known. “Sir Patrick Spens” may be based on a thirteenth century historical event, or combination of events, involving a Scottish king’s daughter or granddaughter being taken to or brought home from Norway. It may be a conflation of several different shipwrecks, focusing on the dangers of sailing and the supernatural omens that forewarn the doomed. It may simply be a story of suffering and loss that has no specific historical reference but is common to the human condition. Indeed, the ballad has a hauntingly universal appeal.

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Many questions and themes emerge. The drowning seems needless, senseless. Yet there is at least a grudging admiration for Sir Patrick’s prompt acquiescence to the king’s unavoidable order and an even clearer sense that Sir Patrick’s men go with him to sea because they are personally loyal and willing followers. One might wonder whether treachery was involved in the old knight’s telling the king that Sir Patrick Spens was the best sailor. One might ask whether the king had an overwhelming reason to risk sending a ship to sea at a bad time of year and thought Sir Patrick was his only hope. Such concerns about human motivation have remained problematic throughout the centuries. The supernatural also continues to intrigue. Is there some unknown power that seeks to warn individuals about their actions? Is there some intuition, or some external projection of inner knowledge, that enables people to make optimal choices?

There are sociopolitical implications in the inclusion of the Scots lords, who appear in the numerous versions of the poem but are never explained. Although as in most ballads there is no editorial commentary, it is clear that Sir Patrick Spens is more admirable than the lords, particularly in the depiction of the lords as being so fussy that they did not want to get their fancy cork-heeled shoes wet even while aboard a ship and in the wry finality of their hats floating on the water. They themselves are not merely drowned with Sir Patrick but are “at his feet” in the watery grave.

A similar attitude is taken toward the ladies who sit with their fans in their hands and stand with their gold combs in their hair, waiting fruitlessly for their lords to return. These are not hardworking peasant women longing for the return of their husbands or sons. These ladies, like their lords, are pictured as the idle rich, perhaps as insensitive and demanding of others as the king may be.

These motifs do not lessen the impact of the narrative. Rather, everything adds to the impact of the loss of good Sir Patrick, to the finality of the loss of the ship and all aboard, and to the sense of events often being the result of forces beyond any individual control. At some level, the human spirit often finds itself crying out, with Sir Patrick Spens, “O wha is this has done this deed,/ This ill deed done to me”—and yet, the poem suggests, the individual continues to act, and at best proceeds with courage in the face of whatever storms may blow.

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