Week 173: A Lyke-wake Dirge

I think one can respect the sombre power of this poem even if, like me, you have reservations about the belief system that inspired it and feel that the moral progress of humanity is and should be away from the notion of doing good to others in the hope of reward or for the avoidance of punishment in the next world and towards the notion of doing good to others simply because it makes a better place of this world.

Some versions amend ‘fleet’ in the third line to ‘sleet’, and in his ‘English and Scottish Ballads’ Robert Graves amends it to ‘salt’ but I am reluctant to lose the alliteration and anyway there is a perfectly good explanation that ‘fleet’ in Yorkshire dialect means floor or house-room, and so the third line is summarising the comforts of the house which the soul must then leave to go out in the dark and cold.

A Lyke-Wake Dirge

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny-muir when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

Anon

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2 thoughts on “Week 173: A Lyke-wake Dirge

  1. Always good to re-read this. Buffy Ste-Marie did a version of it, I remember.

    I suspect the doing good to others is doing good for the world is not enough, or the right sort, of spur for recalcitrant people. There has to be a bigger more impt reason. That’s where religion came in. People seem to need the more; which is probably why socialist worlds tend to be so very drab and lifeless.

    I used to be a big fan of Graves and his ideas. Until I came to the conclusion he was too credulous in many respects; and a lot of his conclusions were baseless.
    Doesn’t make him a bad port, of course.

    • Pentangle also did it on their early album ‘Basket of Light’, and Steeleye Span have done it. While I am a great fan of Maddy Prior, I think on this occasion I prefer the Pentangle version.
      I agree that Graves did have a tendency to let his passion for what he saw as the truth override his concern for the mere fact in a way that can be disconcerting to those of us lacking his gift of intuitive conviction. But as you say, I don’t think it worked to the detriment of his best poems, and those at the end of the day are what count.

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