Sir Patrick Spens

Start Free Trial

Editor's Choice

Can you summarize "Sir Patrick Spens"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Sir Patrick Spens" is a traditional ballad that may be very distantly based on thirteenth-century events. Eighteen versions of the ballad were collected from oral performers by the distinguished American folklore scholar Francis James Child (February 1, 1825–September 11, 1896). As with most oral traditional works, there is no one authoritative version, but rather the ballad evolved over a long period in the performances of generations of singers.

The ballad is written in four-line stanzas rhyming ABCB, that is with the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyming. The lines alternate between iambic tetrameter (odd lines) and iambic trimeter (even lines).

The ballad is told in the third person and includes both narration and dialogue. It tells the story of a Scottish king seeking a great sailor to bring his daughter home from Norway despite it being a dangerous time of year for a voyage. Sir Patrick Spens is mentioned as the greatest sailor of the kingdom and is selected for the mission despite his reluctance to sail and fear that he might not return from the voyage. The precise events vary in different versions of the ballad, but in all versions the ship encounters a storm, presaged by ominous signs. The storm is described in vivid detail and the ship sinks.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The ballad of Sir Patrick Spens begins with the king in Dunfermline asking his counsellors where he can find a skillful captain to sail his ship. One of them recommends Sir Patrick Spens, and the king sends him a letter, commanding him to sail to Norway and bring the King’s daughter back with him. Sir Patrick laughs, then cries when he receives the letter, for it is a dangerous time of year to sail (presumably winter). Nonetheless, Sir Patrick sails on a Monday morning and reaches Norway on Wednesday.

Soon after this, the Norwegian lords begin to accuse him of spending all their king’s money, though Sir Patrick protests that he brought plenty of money, both silver and gold, with him. Nonetheless, he prepares to sail the next day, even though his crew warn of a storm brewing. The ship sails into a deadly storm and is badly damaged. They attempt to repair it with silk and twine, but still the ship takes on water. The Scots lords are afraid their feet will get wet, but it is their hats that are covered by the sea soon enough. Back at home in Scotland, despairing ladies wait in vain for their lords, but these lords are drowned and lie fifty fathoms deep in the sea, forty miles off the coast of Aberdeen, along with Sir Patrick Spens.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Sir Patrick Spens" is a tragic ballad of Scotland. First published in 1765, it is probably much older than that date, probably by several centuries.  While a real Sir Patrick Spens has never been identified, it is possible there was a real thirteenth-century event involving the daughter of the King of Norway on which the poem is based.  But the importance of the actual events is not so great as the literary quality and the excellence of the ballad form in this poem

The story of the poem is broadly thus: The king of Scotland needs to fetch the daughter of the king of Norway from over the sea, and therefore needs a very good sailor to go and get her.  It is understood that this is a bad time of year for sailing (probably winter), and therefore the choice of captain ("skipper") of the ship would be put in considerable danger.  Some "eldern knight" at the Scottish court -- he is not named, specifically -- suggests the excellent sailor, Sir Patrick Spens.

The king's orders are brought to him while Sir Patrick is walking on a beach (the strand).  The first line of the letter makes him laugh, the second makes him weep ("The tear blinded his ee").  Sir Patrick rails against whoever suggested him "O who is this has done this deed,
Has told the King of me(?)", but he follows the order and goes to Norway.

While in Norway, he is criticized by the Norwegian knights for spending the money and abusing the hospitality of their king.  Again Sir Patrick protests, saying that he brought a great deal of silver ("white monie") and gold with him from Scotland.  But again Sir Patrick does as he is told, and embarks even though the weather and the phase of the moon are sore against him, threatening a storm.

Of course, when the ship is too far from land for succor, a fearful storm with lightning arises.  The sailors try to keep the sea out by stuffing the hole in the side of the ship with cloth, but the water comes in nevertheless.  The poet says wryly that the Scots lords were loath to get their cork-heeled shoes wet, but, alas, their hats were soon to be drenched.  In other words, the ship sinks and all the people on board are drowned.  They lie forty miles off the coast of Aberdeen on the bottom of the sea.

This ballad, with its regular rhyme, musical Scots dialect, and dramatic build-up to a tragic ending, is a classic example of the form.  Ballads were almost always spoken or sung, and the literary form is meant to be enjoyed by hearing rather than by reading. The short, rhyming lines and stanzas of "Sir Patrick Spens" are easy to remember, and most people can remember one line verbatim, at least, after only one hearing.  It is a form that is exceedingly easy to memorize, and thus, easily remembered, becomes a part of the collective memory of its hearers.  The skillful building of suspense in the final stanzas of the poem, though the outcome is probably clear to most listeners and not a surprise, makes the ending that much more emotional for the hearers.  This popular form of poetry is still recited and composed today, in Scotland and many other cultures.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial