Sir Patrick Spens

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Analysis of the ballad "Sir Patrick Spens."


"Sir Patrick Spens" is a traditional Scottish ballad that explores themes of loyalty, duty, and the tragic consequences of obeying authority. The ballad tells the story of Sir Patrick Spens, a skilled sailor who is commanded by the king to undertake a perilous voyage. Despite foreseeing disaster, Spens dutifully sets sail, leading to the inevitable shipwreck and loss of life.

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Why is "Sir Patrick Spens" considered a ballad?

What is a ballad? There are many identifying factors that you can use when attempting to discern whether a piece of poetry is a ballad or not. One of the most telling clues that a written piece is a ballad is that it has a strong structure and rhythmic quality. This is because ballads are meant to mimic a spoken narrative. One can simply imagine sitting there and listening to a storyteller relay the ballad. A ballad also tells a story, and does so in fairly simple language, unlike other poems that you may find in literature which challenge the reader with narrative complexities.

One final clue that you can use to determine whether a written piece is a ballad is whether it is written in stanza form. A stanza is a group of lines that repeats within the piece; typically, a stanza in a ballad has a rhyme that follows either an abcb or an abab pattern. Note that the most important detail is that the second and fourth lines of the stanza rhyme.

All of these details can be found in "Sir Patrick Spens," a popular traditional ballad with origins in Scotland. Using simple but direct language, "Sir Patrick Spens" relates the story of a sailor called out to sea, only to receive omens of ill fortune such as the rising new moon that ultimately lead to the sinking of his ship. As for the stanza form, let's take a look at the first stanza of the ballad.

The king sits in Dunfermline toune
drinking the blude reid wine,
"O whar can I get skeely skipper,
To sail this ship o' mine?"

Note that the second and fourth verse of this stanza rhyme. This stanza is written in abcb form.

With all of these clues put together, it is easy to deduce that "Sir Patrick Spens" is in fact a ballad, and one that for the most part follows all the traditional rules of what a ballad is meant to be.

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Why is "Sir Patrick Spens" considered a ballad?

I have written a response on "Sir Patrick Spens" which summarizes the poem and also discusses the ballad form.  Click on the link below to read the answer.  The last paragraph focuses on the poetic form.

Ballads almost always tell a folk-tale (or sometimes fairy-tale or supernatural story) -type story, which often (but not always) is tragic.  In the majority of cases ballads were meant to be sung, so there is a definitely regular, rhythmic, song-like quality to them.  Also, most ballads have repeated lines, usually at the ends of stanzas.  "Sir Patrick Spens" has all of these features.

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

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.

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What is the point of view in the ballad "Sir Patrick Spens"?

The point of view of the ballad "Sir Patrick Spens" is third person omniscient. The narrator is not a character in the narrative, and they are able to tell about all of the events in the poem and quote multiple characters.

During some stanzas of the poem, the narrator uses direct quotes to recount what the King says when he's trying to find someone to sail his ship, and what Sir Patrick says when he is commissioned to do the job. We can tell both through the direct quotes and through the third person omniscient narration what multiple characters think and feel. 

The poem ends tragically, with Sir Patrick's ship going down in a storm and everyone on board drowning. We also hear that there are loved ones waiting for them, but they are at the bottom of the sea.

The poem is a ballad due to its meter and rhyme scheme. It is also typical that ballads be narrated in third person point of view. 

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What is the point of view in the ballad "Sir Patrick Spens"?

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.

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