Themes and Meanings
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 It may simply be a story of suffering and loss that has no specific historical reference but is common to the human condition.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.
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...
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