Week 335: Thomas the Rhymer, by Anon

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.

Anon

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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.’

Anon

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.

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

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!’

Anon

Week 197: Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard

This great ballad, Child 81, is probably best known these days in the version belted out by Sandy Denny on the seminal folk album ‘Liege and Lief’ under the alternative title ‘Matty Groves’, but I’ve slightly reluctantly gone back to the primary Child version, confining myself to a little modernisation of the spelling (a bolder soul than I might be tempted to make a composite text from the best the numerous versions have to offer, but at least this version includes the lady’s beautiful injunction to her lover to ‘huggle me from the cold’).

One of the things I like about these ballads is the sheer feistiness of their heroines, forever seeing what they want and going for it, which acts as a useful corrective to the demure passivity of the females in so much courtly verse of the past. Let’s face it, poor Little Musgrave never had a chance…

Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard

It fell out one holy-day,
As many be in the year,
When young men and maids together did go,
Their mattins and mass to heare,

Little Musgrave came to the church-door;
The priest was at private masse;
But he had more mind of the fair women
Then he had of our lady’s grace.

The one of them was clad in green,
Another was clad in pall,
And then came in my lord Barnard’s wife,
The fairest amongst them all.

She cast an eye on Little Musgrave,
As bright as the summer sun;
And then bethought this Little Musgrave,
This lady’s heart have I won.

Quoth she, I have loved thee, Little Musgrave,
Full long and many a day;
‘So have I loved  you, fair lady,
Yet never word durst I say.’

‘I have a bower at Bucklesfordbery,
Full daintily it is dight;
If thou wilt wend thither, thou Little Musgrave,
Thou’s lig in mine arms all night.’

Quoth he, I thank yee, faire lady,
This kindness thou showest to me;
But whether it be to my weal or woe,
This night I will lig with thee.

With that he heard, a little tiny page,
By this lady’s coach as he ran:
‘All though I am my lady’s foot-page,
Yet I am Lord Barnard’s man.

‘My lord Barnard shall know of this,
Whether I sink or swim;’
And ever where the bridges were broke
He laid him down to swim.

‘Asleep or wake, thou Lord Barnard,
As thou art a man of life,
For Little Musgrave is at Bucklesfordbery,
Abed with thy own wedded wife.’

‘If this be true, thou little tiny page,
This thing thou tellest to me,
Then all the land in Bucklesfordbery
I freely will give to thee.

‘But if it be a lie, thou little tiny page,
This thing thou tellest to me,
On the highest tree in Bucklesfordbery
Then hanged shalt thou be.’

He called up his merry men all:
‘Come saddle me my steed;
This night must I to Bucklesfordbery,
For I never had greater need.’

And some of them whistled, and some of them sung,
And some these words did say,
And ever when my lord Barnard’s horn blew,
‘Away, Musgrave, away!’

‘Methinks I hear the thresel-cock,
Methinks I hear the jay;
Methinks I hear my lord Barnard,
And I would I were away.’

‘Lie still, lie still, thou Little Musgrave,
And huggle me from the cold;
’Tis nothing but a shepherd’s boy,
A-driving his sheep to the fold.

‘Is not thy hawk upon a perch?
Thy steed eats oats and hay;
And thou a fair lady in thine arms,
And wouldst thou be away?’

With that my lord Barnard came to the door,
And lit a stone upon;
He plucked out three silver keys,
And he opened the dooes each one.

He lifted up the coverlet,
He lifted up the sheet:
‘How now, how now, thou Little Musgrave,
Doest thou find my lady sweet?’

‘I find her sweet,’ quoth Little Musgrave,
‘The more ’tis to my paine;
I would gladly give three hundred pounds
That I were on yonder plain.’

‘Arise, arise, thou Little Musgrave,
And put thy clothes on;
It shall ne’er be said in my country
I have killed a naked man.

‘I have two swords in one scabbard,
Full dear they cost my purse;
And thou shalt have the best of them,
And I will have the worse.’

The first stroke that Little Musgrave struck,
He hurt Lord Barnard sore;
The next stroke that Lord Barnard struck,
Little Musgrave ne’er struck more.

With that bespake this faire lady,
In bed whereas she lay:
‘Although thou’rt dead, thou Little Musgrave,
Yet I for thee will pray.

‘And wish well to thy soul will I,
So long as I have life;
So will I not for thee, Barnard,
Although I am thy wedded wife.’

He cut her paps from off her breast;
Great pity it was to see
That some drops of this lady’s heart’s blood
Ran trickling down her knee.

‘Woe worth you, woe worth, my mery men all
You were ne’er born for my good;
Why did you not offer to stay my hand,
When you see me wax so wood?

‘For I have slain the bravest sir knight
That ever rode on steed;
So have I done the fairest lady
That ever did woman’s deed.

‘A grave, a grave,’ Lord Barnard cried,
‘To put these lovers in;
But lay my lady on the upper hand,
For she came of the better kin.’

Anon

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

Week 170: From ‘Pearl’ (author unknown)

‘Pearl’ is a long narrative poem in Middle English from the late 14th century in which a father, apparently mourning the loss of his daughter, falls asleep in a garden and has a vision of a maid in a strange landscape on the other side of a stream: she reproves him for his grief according to Christian doctrine, with a good deal of homily and the usual spiel about submitting to God’s will, and these elements of the poem are maybe not likely to appeal much to our more secular age. But there is one verse that I do find haunting, where the man’s natural humanity is allowed to cry out against the maid’s celestial complacency, while at the same time he remains, in a most pathetic way, desperate not to quarrel with the lost daughter.

I think the English is mostly intelligible to the modern reader, but I append my own attempt at a somewhat modernised rendering.

My blysse, my bale, ye han ben bothe,
But much the bygger yet watz my mone,
Fro thou watz wroken from vch a wothe,
I wyste neuer quere my perle watz gon.
Now I hit see, now lethez my lothe,
And, quen we departed, we wern at on;
God forbede we be now wrothe,
We meten so selden by stok other ston…

My joy, my grief, you have been both,
But much the more has been my moan,
Since you went free from woes of earth,
I knew not where my pearl had gone.
Now that I see, I am less loth,
And when you left, we were as one;
Now God forbid that we be wrath
Who meet no more by stick or stone.

Week 101: The Death Of Queen Jane, by Anon

I first met this ballad on one of Joan Baez’s first albums, back in the early sixties – and thank you, Joan, for opening up to me a world of music I never knew existed – and though I have heard it in many versions since, it’s Joan’s economical lyrics I give here, even though they don’t quite match any of the official Child versions. It has long been one of my favourite folksongs, though my wife, who has undergone four births and two caesareans, has at times been less enamoured of it – ‘Do you have to keep playing that awful song when I’m nine months pregnant?’

The historical details seem to be a little awry – Jane Seymour did not die giving birth to Prince Edward, but twelve days later, King Henry was not there with her, and it is doubtful that she had a caesarean section at all, probably dying of a puerperal infection.

Bob Dylan used this song to criticise Joan Baez’s choice of material, saying that ‘Queen Jane’ was not ‘where it was at’. With all respect to the great Dylan, I think he was quite wrong: for me, songs like this are always and forever where it’s at.

The Death Of Queen Jane

Queen Jane lay in labour
For six weeks or more
The women grew weary
And the midwife gave o’er.

King Henry he was sent for
On horseback and speed.
King Henry came to her
In the time of her need.

O Henry, good King Henry,
If that you do be,
Come pierce my side open
And save my baby.

O no Jane, good Queen Jane,
That never could be.
I’d lose my sweet flower
To save my baby.

Queen Jane she turned over
She fell all in a swoon.
Her side was pierced open
And the baby was found.

How bright was the morning
How yellow was the moon,
How costly the white robe
Queen Jane was wrapped in.

King Henry he weeped,
He wrung his hands till they’re sore.
The flower of England
Will never be no more.

Anon