This magnificent and magical ballad has a habit of popping up at odd places in our culture: for example, it is said to have given Washington Irving, who heard it on a visit to Sir Walter Scott, the idea for ‘Rip van Winkle’, it inspired a bravura reworking by Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Last Rhyme of True Thomas’, and a setting of it by Steeleye Span was chosen by the late and much missed Terry Pratchett as the one disc out of the eight that he would take to a desert island: he described it as having a ‘twilight atmosphere’.
And just a quick note for anyone interested: my own ‘Collected Poems’ is now available from Greenwich Exchange, see http://www.greenex.co.uk/ge_record_detail.asp?ID=191 For more details see ‘News’.
Thomas the Rhymer
True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank;
A ferlie he spied wi’ his e’e;
And there he saw a ladye bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.
Her skirt was o’ the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o’ the velvet fyne;
At ilka tett o’ her horse’s mane,
Hung fifty siller bells and nine.
True Thomas he pu’d aff his cap,
And louted low down on his knee:
‘Hail to thee, Mary, Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth could never be.’
‘O no, O no, Thomas,’ she said,
‘That name does not belang to me;
I’m but the Queen o’ fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.
‘Harp and carp, Thomas,’ she said;
‘Harp and carp along wi’ me;
And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your bodie I will be.’
‘Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunten me.’
Syne he has kiss’d her rosy lips,
All underneath the Eildon Tree.
‘Now ye maun go wi’ me,’ she said,
‘True Thomas, ye maun go wi’ me;
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro’ weal or woe as may chance to be.’
She’s mounted on her milk-white steed,
She’s ta’en true Thomas up behind;
And aye, whene’er her bridle rang,
The steed gaed swifter than the wind.
O they rade on, and farther on,
The steed gaed swifter than the wind;
Until they reach’d a desert wide,
And living land was left behind.
‘Light down, light down now, true Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide ye there a little space,
And I will show you ferlies three.
‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi’ thorns and briers?
That is the Path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.
‘And see ye not yon braid, braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the Path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven.
‘And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.
‘But, Thomas, ye sall haud your tongue,
Whatever ye may hear or see;
For speak ye word in Elfyn-land,
Ye’ll ne’er win back to your ain countrie.’
O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded rivers abune the knee;
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.
It was mirk, mirk night, there was nae starlight,
They waded thro’ red blude to the knee;
For a’ the blude that’s shed on the earth
Rins through the springs o’ that countrie.
Syne they came to a garden green,
And she pu’d an apple frae a tree:
‘Take this for thy wages, true Thomas;
It will give thee the tongue that can never lee.’
‘My tongue is my ain,’ true Thomas he said;
‘A gudely gift ye wad gie to me!
I neither dought to buy or sell
At fair or tryst where I might be.
‘I dought neither speak to prince or peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair ladye!’—
‘Now haud thy peace, Thomas,’ she said,
‘For as I say, so must it be.’
He has gotten a coat of the even cloth,
And a pair o’ shoon of the velvet green;
And till seven years were gane and past,
True Thomas on earth was never seen.