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.


Week 38: Dick Darval’s Song, by Anon

Dick Darval’s Song

I saw a young man come one night
An apple in his hand.
By moonlight and candlelight
We find the Mollhern land.

I saw a young man come one night
All weeping bitterly
By moonlight and candlelight
We find the gallows tree.


I came across these haunting stanzas, which are possibly only a fragment of a larger piece, in a book about Berkshire ghosts.  To quote: ‘Molly Tape was a local who entered into a passionate love affair with a farmer named Dick Darval. Eventually, Dick rejected the poor girl and, in despair, she hanged herself in the lane between Hurst and the hamlet of Hinton. An old song about Dick indicates that Molly may have unsuccessfully tried her hand at witchcraft in order to win him back. Her scantily clad spirit still haunts the lane.’

The ‘Mollhern land’ is witch-speak for the underworld or land of the dead.

If anyone knows if any more than these two verses exist I should be very pleased to hear from them. Also if anyone knows more about the word Mollhern – the OED gives it as a variant of moll-heron, a grey heron, but what a grey heron might have to do with the land of the dead I don’t know.