Week 288: The Wife of Usher’s Well, by Anon

One of the great Child ballads, Child 79, shot through with a pagan wildness and superstition coexisting uneasily with its veneer of Christianity. The old woman of the title is no meek acceptor of God’s will but a powerful witch, able to curse the elements themselves, that have taken her sons from her, and give them no rest till those sons are returned to her. And so they are, but not ‘in earthly flesh and blood’ as she had wished, but as revenants still bound, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, to Purgatory, and all her efforts to feast them and give them rest are doomed: one night is all they are allowed.

What has always struck me about these grim, spare poems is how, give or take a few strange words and spellings, they remain so alive and immediate for us, often more so than much of the poetry of later centuries.

carline wife = old woman
fashes = troubles
flood = sea
birk = birch
syke = gully, trench
sheugh = ditch, furrow
daw = dawn
channerin = grumbling, chiding
gin = if

The Wife of Usher’s Well

There lived a wife at Usher’s well,
And a wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And sent them o’er the sea.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely ane,
When word came to the carline wife
That her three sons were gane.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely three,
When word came to the carline wife
That her sons she’d never see.

‘I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come hame to me,
In earthly flesh and blood!’

It fell about the Martinmas,
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carline wife’s three sons came hame,
And their hats were o’ the birk.

It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o’ Paradise
That birk grew fair eneugh.

‘Blow up the fire, my maidens!
Bring water from the well!
For a’ my house shall feast this night,
Since my three sons are well.’

And she has made to them a bed,
She’s made it large and wide;
And she’s ta’en her mantle her about,
Sat down at the bedside.

Up then crew the red, red cock,
And up and crew the gray;
The eldest to the youngest said.
‘’Tis time we were away.’

The cock he hadna craw’d but once,
And clapp’d his wings at a’,
When the youngest to the eldest said,
‘Brother, we must awa’.

‘The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
The channerin’ worm doth chide;
Gin we be miss’d out o’ our place,
A sair pain we maun bide.’

‘Lie still, lie still but a little wee while,
Lie still but if we may;
Gin my mother should miss us when she wakes,
She’ll go mad ere it be day.’

‘Fare ye weel, my mother dear!
Fareweel to barn and byre!
And fare ye weel, the bonny lass
That kindles my mother’s fire!’


2 thoughts on “Week 288: The Wife of Usher’s Well, by Anon

  1. Hi David, you have “carlin wife” in the glossary and “carline wife” (twice) in the text. Shouldn’t glossary and text agree? And “gin =if” could be added to the glossary?

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