“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.
“Sir Patrick Spens,” like most traditional ballads, relates a sad and tragic story of danger and death. The Scottish king, in Dumferline, wants a sailor to sail his ship. An old knight says that Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor; the king writes and signs a letter, which is delivered to him as he is walking along the seacoast. At first Sir Patrick laughs at the order, then a tear blinds his eye and he asks who has done this “ill deed” to send him to sea at this time of the year (presumably winter, when the sea is at its roughest).
Sir Patrick Spens tells his men that they will sail in the morning. One man expresses the fear that there will be a deadly storm and that they will “come to harm,” because he has seen an omen of danger, a circle rounding out the new moon. A group of Scots noblemen are aboard the ship when it sinks. The ladies on the shore will wait in vain for their return. They will never see Sir Patrick Spens or his passengers again. Instead, deep in the sea, halfway between somewhere and Aberdour, Scotland, there lies Sir Patrick Spens, with the Scots lords at his feet.
Forms and Devices
“Sir Patrick Spens” consists of quatrains (stanzas of four lines), with the second and fourth lines rhyming, a rhyme scheme commonly signified as abcb. The lines alternate between tetrameter (four metrical feet, or stressed syllables, per line) and trimeter (three feet per line). Such quatrains are called ballad stanzas. The basic meter is iambic, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed (accented) syllable, the most commonly used poetic foot in English-language poetry. “Sir Patrick Spens” is virtually a model of the form of the traditional English ballad.
The regular meter, or beat, of the ballad is typical in that ballads were originally songs. The simplicity of the music to which they were sung not only influenced the distinctive verse form but also promoted a simplicity in the narrative itself. In addition, because they were oral, rather than written, over time stanzas were lost or forgotten, phrases altered, and details changed. Further changes were made as editors from the eighteenth through the twentieth century collated versions and selected phrases and lines they deemed most poetic or appropriate. Thus the narrative has an intense...
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