The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Sir Patrick Spens” is a well-known and popular ballad of unknown origin. The poem has many versions, with considerable variation in length and detail, as indicated in Francis James Child’s five-volume collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898), which includes eighteen versions under the title “Sir Patrick Spence.” The most widely known version is a composite one with modernized spelling which appears in volume 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, starting with the first edition in 1962. In the most common version, the poem has eleven stanzas, each consisting of four lines, with the second and fourth lines rhyming. Even in the modernized version, the language suggests a long-ago Scots dialect that is more easily understood when the words are said aloud than when they are seen printed on the page. This is entirely appropriate and in keeping with the history of ballads, anonymous narrative songs that were preserved by oral transmission long before they were written down.

It is also typical of ballads that the historical events which might have led to the creation of the ballad are unclear. It is not known which king might be referred to in the poem or if there ever was an actual Sir Patrick Spens. Connecting details, such as why the king ordered Sir Patrick Spens to sea, where he was headed, or why the Scots lords were aboard the ship, are not given, but the stark tragedy is clear.

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(The entire section is 448 words.)