Week 302: The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry

Last Friday I happened to catch the end of one of this year’s Proms concerts which was showcasing British folksong, and the closing piece was a mass singing of the beautiful ballad ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’. I confess that I wasn’t much taken with this rendering – not as bad as those wince-making drawing-room arrangements of folksong beloved of early twentieth century British composers, but still far too orchestrated and ornamented for my taste. Give me an a cappella version, or at best a very modest instrumental accompaniment: the words of great folksongs are words of power and magic, and they should be allowed to speak for themselves.

A ‘silkie’ (or selkie) was one of the seafolk, enchanted creatures who lived in the sea as seals but could come ashore, take on human form and even take a human husband or wife.

As usual with ballads, there are several versions of the text: what I give here is a shorter version from the Shetlands (Child ballad 113), made popular in the sixties by Joan Baez; there is a much longer Orcadian version favoured by the great Scots ballad singers Jean Redpath and Archie Fisher, and sung to a tune that may be more authentic, but I rather like the more compact Shetland version and like its tune too.

The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry

An earthly nourris sits and sings,
And aye, she sings ‘Ba lily wean,
Little ken I my bairn’s father,
Far less the land that he staps in’.

Then ane arose at her bed fit.
And a grumly guest I’m sure was he,
Saying ‘Here am I, thy bairn’s father,
Although I be not comely.’

‘I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie on the sea,
And when I’m far and far frae land,
My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie.’

And he has ta’en a purse of gold
And he has placed it upon her knee,
Saying, ‘Give to me my little young son,
And take thee up thy nurse’s fee.

‘It shall come to pass on a summer’s day,
When the sun shines het on every stane,
That I shall fetch my little young son,
And teach him for to swim the faem.

‘And thu shall marry a proud gunner,
And a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And the very first shot that e’er he shoots
He’ll shoot both my young son and me.’



Week 301: Hospital, by Molly Holden

I was at a bit of a loss when asked my religion the only time I was ever admitted to hospital. ‘Well, I like churches, but I don’t know that I actually believe anything’. ‘I’ll put you down as C. of E. then, love’. ‘Oh, OK’. This had the advantage that I was left alone, while poor Molly Holden, more positive in her reply, was plagued by a whole string of visitations, which gives this valiant sad poem her characteristic edging of wry humour.

A note on the last line: ‘against great odds in a narrow place’. This is a quote from the work of the scholar W.P.Ker, who uses the phrase to characterise the classic final situation of the doomed protagonist in Norse heroic literature: Gunnar defending his home at Hlitharend, for example, or Hrolf Kraki and his twelve berserkers taking on a whole army, though it might equally apply to the Spartans at Thermopylae or Roland at Roncesvalles. Molly Holden was well acquainted with Icelandic saga literature, and would surely have known Ker’s seminal works ‘Epic and Romance’ and ‘The Dark Ages’.


They sought me out, the ancient consolations,
now that I lay helpless in their reach,
with well-greased shoes and oily conversation,
hoping to net me on that painful beach;

helpless indeed I lay, in that white bed, hands outspread,
legs useless down the length before my eyes,
and could not care a deal for anything they said,
kind though they thought themselves and wise.

Jamaican nurses spoke of Christ, wheelchair conversions,
souls brought to God who’d never seen the light;
quietly I nodded when I could, without aspersions,
was grateful that they cared to help me fight.

Catholic nurses said they’d pray for me, raising
their rosaries, promising aves every day;
a priest put up a meaningless blessing, praising
a courage I did not have, and went away.

The Church of England would have liked discussion,
seeing I’d admitted myself: ‘religion none’.
I held my own a while but without passion
and asked to be excused a dialectic run.

And all the while I lay, under the words and attempted curing,
seeking inside not out for a human grace
that would give me a strength and a courage for enduring
against great odds in a narrow place.

Molly Holden

Week 300: A Litany in Time of Plague, by Thomas Nashe

This poem originally appeared as part of a play called ‘Summer’s Last Will and Testament’, published in 1600. In this masque, which features personifications of the four seasons, Summer is old and declining, and requests at one point ‘Sing me some doleful ditty to the Lute/That may complain my near approaching death’, and his request is duly granted. The play itself is pretty much forgotten now except among Elizabethan specialists, and so, one feels, might the poem be, as no more than a string of competent commonplaces, but for its startlingly beautiful third stanza.

A Litany in Time of Plague

Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
‘Come, come!’ the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.

Thomas Nashe

Week 299: An Epitaph, by Walter De La Mare

Recently my wife observed rather sadly. ‘Nan’s birthday today. Just think, when I die there’ll be no one left who remembers that, and no one left who remembers her’. As her grandmother died fifty-five years ago, and had she lived would now be one hundred and twenty-six, it was hard to think of anything useful to say, but I did recite this poem to her. It didn’t help.

An Epitaph

Here lies a most beautiful lady,
Light of step and heart was she;
I think she was the most beautiful lady
That ever was in the West Country.

But beauty vanishes, beauty passes;
However rare — rare it be;
And when I crumble, who will remember
This lady of the West Country?

Walter De La Mare

Week 298: At His Father’s Grave, by John Ormond

The Welsh poet John Ormond (1923-1990) was also a film-maker, whose documentaries included studies of Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis, R.S.Thomas and the artist Kyffin Williams. This poems is from his 1969 collection ‘Requiem and Celebration’.

At His Father’s Grave

Here lies a shoemaker whose knife and hammer
Fell idle at the height of summer,
Who was not missed so much as when the rain
Of winter brought him back to mind.

He was no preacher but his working text
Was ‘See all dry this winter and the next’.
Stand still. Remember his two hands, his laugh,
His craftsmanship. They are his epitaph.

John Ormond

Week 297: Heatwave, by David Sutton

Sorry, it’s been too hot here this week for much in the way of inspiration, so I’m making do with one of my own, written during another such summer, though not, I think, the legendary summer of 1976; it seems to have been during a hot spell in 1989.


The world’s less real on summer afternoons.
We walk in dazzle, wan as daylit ghosts.
The streets are white and foreign: in dim shops
Assistants idle, sheened like melting wax.
In offices, in schools, in hospitals
The hours are burning dunes, and far off yet
Oasis evening with its water-dreams,
Its shadows and its cool solidities.

The countryside’s no better: mirages
Sizzle on the surfaces of lanes;
The larks vibrate in poplared distances;
Crops swelter in the fields, on crumbling banks
The soil lips back from blue-white teeth of flint.
All roads are longer: air lies honey-thick
Round farmyard gates; a solitary child
Puddles its naked foot in pavement tar.

Truth is, this is no season for us now:
Untalking and untouching, we endure
Like cattle on the hillside, till day’s ebb
Sucks at the round-pooled shadows of the trees.
‘For the young’ we say, disturbed at light
So riotous and squandered, suited now
To cooler, more reflective husbandries:
Night, and the moonlight’s pure economy.

David Sutton

Week 296: From ‘Notes for a Biography’, by Louis MacNeice

Poetry and politics do not always mix well, but one has to admire poets who are not afraid to engage with the big issues of their day, and they don’t come much bigger than the one addressed by Louis MacNeice in this poem, written after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From ‘Notes for a Biography’

‘Now follow our pointer; look, here is Japan
Where man must now make what he chooses of man,
And these towns are selected to pay for their crime –
A milestone in history, a gravestone in time.

When I first heard the news, to my shame I was glad;
When I next read the news I thought man had gone mad,
And every day since the more news that I read
I too would plead guilty – but where can I plead?

For no one will listen, however I rage;
I am not of their temper and not of this age.
Outnumbered, outmoded, I only can pray
Commonsense, if not love, will still carry the day.

Louis MacNeice