Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sir Patrick Spens - O wha is this has done this deid

"Sir Patrick Spens" exists in several versions, and dates from who knows when. It could be from a quite old source, or it could be as new as the 17th century. Sometimes I think it's the greatest poem in the language. It's a little long for this sort of post, but that won't bother anyone - Greatest Poem in the Language!

Sir Patrick Spens

The king sits in Dunfermling toune,
Drinking the blude-reid wine:
O whar will I get guid sailor,
To sail this schip of mine?

Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the kings richt kne:
Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That sails upon the se.

The king has written a braid letter,
And sign'd it wi' his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
Was walking on the sand.

The first line that Sir Patrick red,
A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick red,
The teir blinded his e'e.

O wha is this has don this deid,
This ill deid don to me,
To send me out this time o' the yeir,
To sail upon the se!

Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
Our guid schip sails the morne:
O say na sae, my master deir,
For I feir a deadlie storme.

Late, late yestereen I saw the new moone,
Wi' the auld moone in hir arme,
And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
That we will com to harme.

O our Scots nobles wer richt laith
To weet their cork-heild schoone;
Bot lang owre a' the play were playd,
Thair hats they swam aboone.

O lang, lang may their ladies sit,
Wi' their fans into their hand,
Or eir they se Sir Patrick Spens
Cum sailing to the land.

O lang, lang may the ladies stand,
Wi' thair gold kems in their hair,
Waiting for their ain deir lords,
For they'll se thame na mair.

Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
It's fiftie fadom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spens,
Wi the Scots lords at his feit.

It's the two stanzas in the middle that really do it, right? It's the laugh of Sir Patrick, followed by the tear. Maybe it's just the laugh. There's a narrative compression here that one can find in the Old Testament, and in early Spanish ballads. Probably other places, but not many. The real story is packed into a few lines, a few words.

UPDATE: There are a half dozen versions of this poem. I prefer the minimalist version. A discerning commenter prefers more shipboard action:

We hadna sailed a league, a league,
A league but only twa,
Till cauld and watry grew the wind,
Come hailing owre them a’.

We hadna sailed a league, a league,
A league but only three,
Till cold and watry grew the wind,
And grumly grew the sea.

‘Wha will come,’ the captain says,
‘And take my helm in hand?
Or wha’ll gae up to my topmast,
And look for some dry land?

‘Mount up, mount up, my pretty boy,
See what you can spy;
Mount up, mount up, my pretty boy,
See if any land we’re nigh.’

‘We’re fifty miles from shore to shore,
And fifty banks of sand;
And we have all that for to sail
Or we come to dry land.’

‘Come down, come down, my pretty boy,
I think you tarry lang;
For the saut sea’s in at our coat-neck
And out at our left arm.

‘Come down, come down, my pretty boy,
I fear we here maun die;
For thro and thro my goodly ship
I see the green-waved sea.’

And I was worried it was too long. It's so good people just want more.


  1. Oh, but you left out the best part, the second bit on the ship! That's what really drew me in when I was a kid (no more than 10 if that) when I came up on it in what soon became my first honest-to-goodness poetry anthology.

    The Scottish ballads really appealed to me because of the rebellious themes. (OK, all the action: fighting, heroism, betrayal, tragic defeat, fighting...) Do I even know any English ones well...? I must but I can't recall any at the moment.

  2. Noted and amended. The lines about the seawater running out the captain's sleeves are especially good.

  3. Thank you kindly. I had no idea there were different versions of the poems. It's a shame I'm not at home with my poetry anthology which, I think, still has a different version from yours. I looked up in Bartleby and recognised this part two too (speaking of long...):

    The Return

    ‘Mak ready, mak ready, my merry men a’!
    Our gude ship sails the morn.’—
    ‘Now ever alack, my master dear, 35
    I fear a deadly storm.


    ‘I saw the new moon late yestreen
    Wi’ the auld moon in her arm;
    And if we gang to sea, master,
    I fear we’ll come to harm.’ 40


    They hadna sail’d a league, a league,
    A league but barely three,
    When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud,
    And gurly grew the sea.


    The ankers brak, and the topmast lap, 45
    It was sic a deadly storm:
    And the waves cam owre the broken ship
    Till a’ her sides were torn.


    ‘O where will I get a gude sailor
    To tak’ my helm in hand, 50
    Till I get up to the tall topmast
    To see if I can spy land?’—


    ‘O here am I, a sailor gude,
    To tak’ the helm in hand,
    Till you go up to the tall topmast, 55
    But I fear you’ll ne’er spy land.’


    He hadna gane a step, a step,
    A step but barely ane,
    When a bolt flew out of our goodly ship,
    And the saut sea it came in. 60


    ‘Go fetch a web o’ the silken claith,
    Another o’ the twine,
    And wap them into our ship’s side,
    And let nae the sea come in.’


    They fetch’d a web o’ the silken claith, 65
    Another o’ the twine,
    And they wapp’d them round that gude ship’s side,
    But still the sea came in.


    O laith, laith were our gude Scots lords
    To wet their cork-heel’d shoon; 70
    But lang or a’ the play was play’d
    They wat their hats aboon.


    And mony was the feather bed
    That flatter’d on the faem;
    And mony was the gude lord’s son 75
    That never mair cam hame.


    O lang, lang may the ladies sit,
    Wi’ their fans into their hand,
    Before they see Sir Patrick Spens
    Come sailing to the strand! 80


    And lang, lang may the maidens sit
    Wi’ their gowd kames in their hair,
    A-waiting for their ain dear loves!
    For them they’ll see nae mair.


    Half-owre, half-owre to Aberdour, 85
    ’Tis fifty fathoms deep;
    And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,
    Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet!

  4. This has been great fun. Note that none of these versions omit the wonderful "cork-heel'd shoon", giving us the image of the drowned sailors floating with their buoyant feet above their heads.

  5. why does the king drink blue reid wine, whats it symbolize or hint at?

  6. Blood-red, youngster, blood-red! Now the symbolism ought to be clear enough.