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The composition of "Sir Patrick Spence".

The last lines of "Sir Patrick Spence" in the Percy version of this poem (1)--the whole of which I herewith produce--significantly reflect the first lines:
   The king sits in Dumferling toune,
   Drinking the blude-reid wine:
   O quhar will I get guid sailor,
   To sail this schip of mine?

   Up and spak an eldern knicht,
   Sat at the kings richt kne:
   Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor,
   That sails upon the se.

   The king has written a braid letter,
   And signd it wi' his hand;
   And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,
   Was walking on the sand.

   The first line that Sir Patrick red,
   A loud lauch lauched he:
   The next line that Sir Patrick red,
   The teir blinded his ee.

   O quha is this has don this deid,
   This ill deid don to me;
   To send me out this time o' the yeir,
   To sail upon the se?

   Mak hast, mak haste, my mirry men all,
   Our guid schip sails the morne.
   O say na sae, my master deir,
   For I feir a deadlie storme.

   Late late yestreen I saw the new moone,
   Wi' the auld moone in hir arme;
   And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
   That we will cum to harme.
   O our Scots nobles wer richt laith
   To weet their cork-heild schoone;
   Bot lang owre a' the play wer playd,
   Thair hats they swam aboone.

   O lang, lang, may thair ladies sit
   Wi' thair fans into their hand,
   Or eir they se Sir Patrick Spence
   Cure sailing to the land.

   O lang, lang, may the ladies stand
   Wi' thair gold kems in their hair,
   Waiting for thair ain deir lords,
   For they'll se thame na mair.

   Have owre, have owre to Aberdour,
   It's fiftie fadom deip:
   And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence,
   Wi' the Scots lords at his feit.

In the first lines, the king sits with an old knight at his knee; in the last, Sir Patrick lies with the assembled Scots lords at his feet--a pattern of contrast that defines the difference between authority and nobility to which the whole poem is devoted. We may also notice that one of the two principal actors is named here, as he has been throughout the Percy version, and that the other, here as elsewhere, remains quite nameless, merely acknowledged as "the king."

The last stanza shares the weighty term "guid" with the first: "guid sailor;" "guid Sir Patrick Spence." This echo enforces the difference between the poern's protagonists, the king, whose irresponsible power dominates the first five stanzas, and Sir Patrick, whose heroic action determines the final six. To the king "guid" means merely servicable, useful: it is a term as appropriate to a tool as to a man. The old knight who describes Sir Patrick as "the best sailor," using the superlative of "guid," obviously accepts his ruler's sense. Sir Patrick will accept this understanding as well when he announces that "our guid schip sails the morne," applying it, however, to a tool. By the end of the poem, as a consequence of Sir Patrick's conduct, "guid" has acquired an obvious human, an obvious moral, value: noble, heroic. In the poem's first lines, the king--not "the guid king"--speaks of "this schip of mine" and asks about someone he can command to sail it while he himself sits drinking wine comfortably at home. In the last lines, "guid Sir Patrick Spence" holds silent, everlasting court on the floor of the transparent sea.

No other early publication of the poem printed or in manuscript--every one of which appeared after Percy's Reliques first introduced it--presents the last stanzas like Percy except for the inflated version in the Minstrelsy of Sir Walter Scott, (2) who knew and loved Percy's book all his adult life. In his MS, which dates from a few years after the Reliques, Motherwell, (3) while preserving Sir Patrick's relationship to the Scottish lords, reversed the order of the last stanzas and concluded his version of the ballad, not with the display on the floor of the sea, but with ladies waiting on shore. Another Motherwell version, which concludes, like Percy's, with the hero, reads: "And there lies good Sir Andrew Wood, / And a' the Scottish fleet." This change of name I will touch elsewhere. For now, I note only the absence of the lords and the consequent dilution of the protagonist's grandeur. Other early versions demote him in other ways. In some cases, Sir Patrick lies at the lords' feet; in one, in which the lords are forgotten, his men lie at Sir Patrick's feet. But no other version sufficiently distinguishes him.

Percy alone, then--except for Scott, who followed him--adequately emphasized the eminence of the hero, both getting the final tableau right and putting it where it belonged. He and David Dalrymple, who both supplied him with many of his Scottish materials and consulted with him about them, had an extended epistolary discussion of another Scottish ballad, "Edom O'Gordon." (4) Dalrymple, an active advocate of Scottish antiquities, had recently published a copy of this ballad and had added--or allowed--two extra stanzas that Percy eventually deleted (Reliques, 1:140-47). The Reliques' modern editor, Henry Wheatley, who often condemns Percy's changes, approves of this one: "Percy showed good taste in rejecting the termination given in Dalrymple's version" (Reliques, 1:142). The sensibility that cropped and thus refined the end of "Edom O'Gordon," we may suggest, also acted to clinch the conclusion of the more artful--the greater--poem.

David Herd devoted the last stanzas of "Sir Patrick Spence" in his published Songs not to the court ladies who congregated in Percy's version, (5) but to the hero's wife, not fingering fans and displaying combs, however, but sewing a seam and comforting her orphaned son--a very different effect, indeed, from Percy's. Scott added--or allowed--a set of maidens, who tore their hair, no doubt disarranging their golden combs. Other early versions of the poem end with survivors who are variously concerned with gloves, tears, and babies. Later versions also made additions to Percy's eleven stanzas. Scott has added fifteen new ones to render the poem, as he himself explained, "more complete" (Minstrelsy, 1:215). He describes in some detail both a successful visit to Norway and the unlucky voyage home, turning a tale of epic action into an item of dubious journalism. Some other versions of the poem inflate Percy's eleven stanzas to sixteen, some to as many as twenty-nine (Child, 2:17-32). These stanzas are loaded with bonny boys, floating mattresses, charges and counter charges of financial malfeasance, broken anchors, snapped masts, and mermaids. Need I report that, as a result of such inflation, the shapely, powerful poem that Percy printed has been blown completely out of shape?

The elements of "Sir Patrick Spence," as Percy printed it, are not only wonderfully terse, but strictly appropriate. Consider, for example, the satiric description of the lords who sailed with Sir Patrick and their ladies who waited at home for his return. Identifying the lords as "our Scots nobles"--not "our gude Scots lords," as Scott revised it (Minstrelsy, 1: 229)--is immediately patronizing, reductive. These lords, moreover, are not brave in facing the storm, but squeamish about getting what Hamlet might have called their "chopines" a little damp. And all that is left of them on the surface of the sea when the ship goes down is their hats, which swim above them. Nothing is mentioned of the lords themselves, neither feet nor heads, only the garments that adorned such parts--and, of course, the lords' foppish concern for these garments. The poem treats the ladies somewhat more politely: they do not have to be prepared to recline at Sir Patrick's feet; but they are well mocked all the same. Their hands' and hair's being named provides them some physical presence; but their hands flourish the fan, that epitome of flirtation, and their hair holds golden combs, so that they project attitudes of coquetry and vanity that ill become wives who are or should be possessed by anxiety and grief.

Consider on the contrary the description of the sailors under Sir Patrick's command--again, as Percy presented this. Although the lords and ladies were allowed never a word, the sailors address their "deir master" with serious concern: having seen what seems in the human world to be a frightening disruption of things, the young moon nursing the old, they express their fear of "a deadlie storm" and the consequent destruction of their ship. Thus the outrage and dismay that Sir Patrick expressed as he read the king's letter and then questioned its message have been confirmed, and the challenge to his bravery and loyalty has been dramatically underscored. The outcome of the voyage has also been obliquely asserted, asserted so decisively, nevertheless, that any description of it would be redundant. Virtually all versions of the ballad have preserved the sailors' complaint, but they follow this with accounts of high winds, wild waves, and futile activity. Only Percy's version, received perhaps in such a form from Dalrymple, as we will soon see, thrusts immediately to the nobles' fancy "cork-heild schoone" and their swimming hats.

In recognizing the artistry of Percy's "Sir Patrick Spence," I have enunciated my first suggestion about its composition, that is, that it was significantly refined by Percy. He himself reported that he had derived his version of the poem "from two MS. copies transmitted from Scotland" (Reliques,1:198). It seems certain from his letters to Dalrymple that one copy came from a collector, John McGowan, and--although this needs confirmation--the other from Dalrymple himself. First for this confirmation. In a letter of June 16, 1763, Percy asked Dalrymple to send him his "old" copy of the poem, "imperfect as you are pleased to represent it" (Letters, 39-57). On August 30, he announced, first, that he had received a packet from McGowan and, later in the same letter, that he had received "the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence." This suggests, first, that he and Dalrymple already shared this poem and, second, that it presented the same hero, "Sir Patrick Spence," in both versions. In a letter of September 8, Percy questioned Dalrymple about "Sir Andrew Wood," whose name, he reports, "is prefixed ... to some copies." This implies once again a shared knowledge of "Sir Patrick Spence," a knowledge that must have come because Dalrymple had sent Percy his copy of the poem. Apparently, however, Percy had at least heard about a third version. In any case, he chose the name in Dalrymple's and McGowan's versions over the other. He also decided, furthermore, to preserve the hero's title, which also occurs apparently in both versions, and not to acknowledge him ever, as he is in other versions of the poem, as "young Patrick" or "skipper Patrick" or simply "Patrick" (Child, 2:17-32). An old antiquary, David Graham, who sent a letter to Percy in November, explaining how "Sir Andrew Wood" crept into the poem, called the hero "young Patrick" (thrice), thus providing some sanction for this impudence (Letters, 152). So Percy's practice, preserving the name and the dignity of his hero throughout the poem, enforces both his reliance on Dalrymple, which he himself repeatedly admitted, and his own literary intelligence.

Percy was always creatively involved with his material, as his own acknowledgements declare. He often made "slight ... additions" to render the poems in his collection, as he explained, more acceptable to "both the judicious antiquary and the reader of taste" (Reliques, 1:11); but he was also ready, for their sakes, to take "the pruning-hook ... to indecent luxuriances" (Reliques, 1:318). Usually having to contend with two-or-more versions of a single piece--as in the case of "Sir Patrick Spence"--he was continually forced willy-nilly to reconcile differences and create a new poem. His colleagues in the gathering of Scottish antiquities--Macpherson, Dalrymple, Lady Wardlaw, Sir Walter Scott, Buchan, Pinkerton, Ramsay and others--all endured this problem; and they all made their editorial choices as readily, if not as candidly, as he did. Each of them felt, moreover, although a particular tissue of motivations drove each one, that he could add to the received stock as his own editorial or poetic urges directed him to do. David Herd, for example, who was more restrained than most, preserved "Sir Patrick Spence" in his MS, changed that to "Sir Andrew Wood" in the 1769 edition of his Songs, and went back to "Sir Patrick" in the 1776 edition. (6) Percy was, if anything, both more scholarly and more open in carrying out this necessary patch work than his contemporaries. The response to his conduct of Ritson and Wheatley (Reliques, l:xxviii; 1:131, 242; and elsewhere) seems to me misguided both in its severity and in its implications. (7) Nevertheless, Percy did often tinker with his materials, constructing some of his reliques, indeed--like "The Friar of Orders Gray" (Reliques, 1:242-46)--from virtually the ground up.

That he worked from two manuscripts, as he himself acknowledged (or from more than two, as we have surmised), declares Percy's creative dedication to the one poem that he published. To suggest the challenge "Sir Patrick Spence" presented, consider his way of handling two versions of "Dulcina." "Each [one] contained a stanza not found in the other [he reported]. What seemed the best readings were selected from both" (Reliques, 3:153). "Were selected:" notice the Johnsonian passive. If one manuscript of "Sir Patrick Spence" was the "old ... imperfect" one that he wormed out of Dalrymple, Percy may simply have made a choice--in favor of that one, which Scott and others would and did describe as incomplete. His excitement in receiving the manuscript from McGowan, however, an excitement he acknowledged to Dalrymple, suggests a deeper involvement. An element of this involvement we have already noticed, his endorsement of the hero's name and rank. Furthermore, if MacGowan's manuscript was longer and gave some circumstances about the voyage, as seems at least likely, in choosing the more condensed--the "old ... imperfect"--version, Percy displayed considerable creative courage. This is not surprising, of course, in the editor who pruned recent luxuriances from one of Dalrymple's contributions, cropped the end of another, and virtually composed one of his own Shakespearean pieces.

The order of the last three stanzas, especially because that completes the design indicated by Percy's preservation of the hero's rank, I am inclined, as I have said, to attribute to him. But the diction, figure, and tone of these stanzas I am less certain of. If we allow that Dalrymple is the "ingenious friend" in a note Percy affixed to the end of "Sir Patrick Spence," (8) we may, however, make some headway in analyzing--I dare not say, "in solving"--the tissue of questions these stanzas and, indeed, almost all the stanzas of this poem present. Here is Percy's note: "An ingenious friend thinks the author of Hardyknute has borrowed several expressions and sentiments from the foregoing ["Sir Patrick Spence"] and other old Scottish songs in this collection." In the regrettable absence of Dalrymple's letters to Percy--they were burned in a fire that struck Percy's apartments in Northumberland House (9)--we will have to come down pretty heavily on this note.

It actually tells us quite a lot. First, it further confirms my argument that "Sir Patrick Spence," in some form or other, was among those that Dalrymple transferred to Percy. Second, it shows that this "old ... imperfect" version had passed through the hands of Lady Wardlaw, the acknowledged author of Hardyknute (Reliques, 2:105-21), and, further, that--contrary to the notorious suggestion made by Robert Chambers (10)--she was not its author. It also suggests, on the other hand, that she had or that Dalrymple believed that she had tampered with it. That would have been like her, as Dalrymple knew.

The similarities between the two poems, although available to an alert, skeptical eye--it takes a thief to catch a thief--are not really very great. Here are a few of the most apparent: the king in Hardyknute "sat at dine ... Drinking the blood-red wine;" "Late late yestreen" Hardyknute had hoped to retire; "Haste up my merry men, cry'd the king;" in Norway the widow of the defeated king "May lang luik ow'r the shipless seas/Before her mate appears" because her "lord lyes in the clay." There are also no doubt several terms common to the two poems: "loud ... leugh;" "nae mair;" "deadly;" "knight;" "harm" (rhymed with "arm" in both); "long" (meaning a long time); "broad" (not applied in Hardyknute to a letter, however); and "eyes"--not an impressive list, but available to someone who was looking for connections.

What can we make of these similarities? Dalrymple's suggestion that the borrowing went chiefly toward Hardyknute seems right. "Late late yestreen" is crucial to the sense of a frightening vision in "Sir Patrick Spence," but merely a piece of information in the other poem: Hardyknute happened to think about retiring last night. "Drinking the blood-red wine," similarly, carries a special significance in "Sir Patrick Spence," indicating the luxurious irresponsibility of kingship that, as I have argued, enforces the contrast at the heart of that poem. In Hardyknute, if it has any special meaning, that meaning runs contrary to the poem as a whole: this "good king," as Lady Wardlaw has labeled him, once he gets the news of the Norse invasion, acts with vigor and leads his troops into battle. He and his nobles, by the way, all act with energy and heroism. Lady Wardlaw's description of the Norse king's fall also lacks the grandeur that the term "lies" confers at the end of "Sir Patrick Spence." (Percy, who, early on, asked Dalrymple about a poem beginning "The king lies in Dunfermling toune," (11) thus shows himself to have had an intense awareness of this term's resonance.) Percy's focus on the anxious ladies at the Scottish court is also appropriate to "Sir Patrick Spence," whereas acknowledging the Norse invader's widow is a sentimental diversion from the Scottish heroics of Hardyknute.

On the other hand, both "Dumferling" and "Aberdour" can easily enough be attributed to the local pride of Lady Wardlaw. "Aberdour" especially seems to stand as a trace of her tampering. The reference to Dunfermline, which was a royal center from the time of Malcolm Canmore, carries a flavor of antiquity and thus might have occurred to anyone, but Aberdour, a small fishing village on the Firth of Forth quite near Dunfermline, could hardly have occurred to anyone except such a local as Lady Wardlaw. Scott and Jamieson changed it to "Aberdeen." I am inclined, swimming as I am in speculation, to attribute the whole line, "Have owre, have owre to Aberdour," to her hand, partly because of the emphatic internal rhyme, and partly because of the repetition--something she may have picked up, of course, from "Late late yestreen," "Mak hast, mak haste," and "lang, lang" in an earlier version of "Sir Patrick Spence." In Herd's MS, which is the closest version to Percy's of all that emerged afterwards (Child, 2:21), this line reads: "The water at St. Johnston's wall."

It may be worthwhile to quote from Hardyknute the lines, "Great love they bare to Fairly fare" and "Here maun I lye, here maun I dye," and from "Sir Patrick Spence," "And I feir, I feir, my deir master." The disruption of the rhyme in this line may reveal Dalrymple's hand. In "Edward, Edward" (Reliques, 1:82-85), a poem he seems to have significantly altered before sending it on to Percy, we find "deir son" and "fadir dear"--that is a transposition of noun-and-adjective--somewhat like the change from "master deir" to "deir master" in "Sir Patrick Spence." Actually, there is a closer analogue in the Reliques. In a succeeding pair of stanzas that Percy added to "The Child of Elle" (Reliques, 1:134) we find "my deare ladye" and "my ladye deare." In such cases, who made what improvement seems indeterminable. ("Improvement," by the way, is a term Percy and his colleagues often employed--in the preface of "Gil Morris" [Reliques, 3:91], for instance--to justify their tampering.) However, that Lady Wardlaw would have composed or preserved "And I feir, I feir, my master deir" seems likely--and equally likely that Dalrymple or Percy found that internal rhyme too facile and changed it. Altogether to discriminate the revisions of Lady Wardlaw, Dalrymple, and Percy from one another in such matters is clearly impossible. It seems certain, however, that Lady Wardlaw inherited a poem (ca. 1700) already beyond the creative powers that produced Hardyknute--a point which Wheatley emphasized (Reliques, 1:lv-lviii)--that it was passed on so that Dalrymple acquired it (ca. 1750) and passed it on to Percy (ca. 1763)--each of them adding something to the "old ... imperfect" version they shared: this follows from Percy's recognition of his "ingenious friend."

But, if the poem pre-dates Lady Wardlaw, its early stages must be considered. The opinion advocated by several antiquaries, that the poem recalls an ill-fated voyage of 1281 bringing Scotsmen home from the nuptials of Princess Margaret, an opinion endorsed by Scott and Wheatley and passed on (skeptically) by Child, (12) seems too far-fetched to deserve attention. Most of the Scots people were still speaking Gaelic--Macbeth's language--in the 13th century. (13) They could hardly have absorbed the necessary English diction--not to speak of the medieval English verse forms and conventions--required for such poetry by this time. (14) (The earliest of the Scottish Chaucerians, James I, was born in 1394 and grew up in England.) But the suggestion made by T.F. Henderson in Scottish Vernacular Literature and repeated in his edition of Scott's Minstrelsy (2:222-23), that this poem emerged in the late sixteenth century from the storm-tossed voyage of King James VI (in 1589) or from voyages preliminary to that, voyages undertaken to bring Anne of Denmark to Scotland, I find--contrary to Wheatley--to be quite substantial.

Here is Henderson's suggestion: the Sir Patrick Spence, or Spens, of the ballad may have been Sir Patrick Vans of Barnbarroch, the original ambassador sent to negotiate the marriage between James VI and Anne of Denmark, and ... the ballad may have voiced the rumour of disaster to the expedition of James VI when in company with Sir Patrick Vans he set out during tempestous weather in October 1589 to bring home his bride.

A number of facts besides the winter storm and the two Sir Patricks support this suggestion. James VI, before embarking, sent a "braid" letter explaining this voyage, not specifically to Sir Patrick Vans, admittedly, but to the Scottish public. (15) This letter written in the king's own hand was thus widely known and widely available for poetic transmutation. (16) Secondly, David Stevenson in Scotland's Last Royal Wedding (17) describes the nobles who accompanied the king on this voyage as "splendidly equipped" and "magnificent." That they would worry about getting their pretty clothes wet--or form their fears of drowning in such terms--seems likely. The portent of the new moon nursing the old, which Henderson describes as "quite a common one in Scotland" (Minstrelsy, 1:231), also supports his suggestion. Immediately after the voyage of 1589, the turbulence of which King James attributed to sinister influences, he inaugrated his infamous witch hunt. And, although I cannot locate in the accounts of this episode any mention of the precise lunar condition mentioned in the poem, (18) late night observation of the moon, the presence of which in the occult is widely recognized, further attaches the poem to James VI and the haunted, tempestuous voyage of 1589. Again, as this might have been transmuted by a poetic imagination.

There is also some external support to attach "Sir Patrick Spence" to James VI and his court around this time, two other poems that Percy received from Scotland and, probably, from Dalrymple: "The Bonny Earl of Murray" (Reliques, 2:226-28) and "Young Waters" (Reliques, 2:228-31). (19) These poems, which are widely recognized to have emerged from the court of James VI in the early 1590s (see, for instance, Letters, 100-1), have obvious affinities with one another and--especially "Young Waters"--with "Sir Patrick Spence." All three use the formula of one or more fine ladies looking out toward some splendid man. The last stanza of "The Bonny Earl of Murray" reads:
   Oh! lang will his lady
   Luke owre the castle downe
   Ere she see the Earl of Murray
   Cum sounding throw the towne.

The second stanza of "Young Waters" reads:
   The queen luikt owre the castle wa,
   Beheld baith dale and down,
   And then she saw young Waters
   Cum riding to the town.

Compare these with this stanza from "Sir Patrick Spence:"
   O lang, lang, may thair ladies sit
   Wi' thair fans into their hand,
   Or eir they se Sir Patrick Spence
   Cum sailing to the land.

(This formula is also used in "Edom O'Gordon," (20) another Dalrymple contribution, we may recall, which traces back--and no further back--to 1571.) We may notice that both of these stanzas feature the word "town," which is the last word of the first line of "Sir Patrick Spence."

These two poems, both firmly attached to the Scottish court of James VI, are similar to one another in other ways as well. Each of them describes a handsome young lord to whom the queen is romantically susceptible and who, apparently because of this, is condemned by the king: the one is murdered in an action that he orders; and the other is hanged. One of them, "Young Waters," which Dalrymple may have edited for its separate publication in 1755 (Reliques, 2:229), that is, before Percy acquired it, also resembles "Sir Patrick Spence" in a number of ways. Its first half is dominated by the king's irresponsible concern--jealousy, in this case--and its last half describes the hero's fate, ending, like "Sir Patrick Spence," with the announcement of his death. "Young Waters" also begins in the king's court, and it displays a pair--actually two pair--of syntactically echoing stanzas such as we find in the penultimate stanzas of "Sir Patrick Spence": "Aft have I ridden ... Aft have I ridden" and "They hae taen ... They hae taen." These are the last four stanzas of the poem. It also employs the same "feet-deep" rhyme. There are, moreover, two cases in "Young Waters" of the narrative formula used in the second stanza of "Sir Patrick Spence": "But then spake a wylie lord" and "Out then spack the jealous king." (21) Young Waters himself is attached, finally, if not to "Dumferling toune," to "Stifling town"; and his lady, although not enhanced with golden adornments, is described actually seeing her husband's death. The resonances apparent between these two poems seem to me to be full of implications.

I believe that both of them emerged, like "The Bonny Earl of Murray," from a creative intelligence infused with remembrances of King James and the gossip surrounding his conduct between 1585 and 1595. I also believe that, in passing through Dalrymple's hands, they received significant "improvements." Again, however, although several possible traces of Dalrymple's hand have emerged in my comparison of "Young Waters" with "Sir Patrick Spence," the details are irrecoverable. There is evidence, actually, that Dalrymple may have sent on to Percy unimproved what he himself called the "old ... imperfect" copy of "Sir Patrick Spence." That language itself allows such a notion. Dalrymple's meticulous restraint in producing his 1770 edition of Ancient Scottish Poems confirms it. There is in The National Library of Scotland the very copy of Allan Ramsay's Evergreen that Dalrymple edited in composing this work. (22) This book, which Dalrymple gave to Percy--as an acknowlegment in Percy's hand on the book's flyleaf attests--Dalrymple had corrected in minute detail from the beginning to the end, rigorously preserving what, as he himself indicated in his Preface to Ancient Scottish Poems, he took to be the unimproved state of his material. True, he omitted, not only poems he felt to be indecent, but indecent lines and phrases from otherwise unoffensive poems. But what he printed, as his editorial practice revealed in his copy of Evergreen makes clear, he did not improve. There is reason to believe, nevertheless, that he tampered with the end of "Edom O'Gordon" and probably with a few other ballads, so we can't be sure what he did to the "old ... imperfect" poem he sent to his English colleague. And there I must leave the question of the Scottish origins of "Sir Patrick Spence."

But beyond these Scottish origins, what else can we suggest? "Sir Patrick Spence" is infused with echoes from Shakespeare, such echoes as do not appear in "Young Waters," "Edom O'Gordon," or "Edward, Edward," poems that Dalrymple may well have improved. An exposition of these echoes (23) will allow me to augment my suggestions about its composition and to begin surveying the whole development from ca. 1590 to 1765 that has provided us with this masterpiece.

The last stanza recalls to me the song in The Tempest,
   Full fadom five thy father lies,
      Of his bones are coral made:
   Those are pearls that were his eyes:
      Nothing of him that doth fade,
   But doth suffer a sea change
   Into something rich and strange.

Percy reproduced this stanza, describing it as "that fine aerial dirge ... in manner the most solemn," in his preface to "Corydon's Doleful Knell," in Book the Second of the Reliques (2:274). Its first line is the most material in the present case. That contains two terms that appear in the last stanza of "Sir Patrick Spence," "fathom" and "lies," and a third, "five," that has a radical affinity with "fifty." More important, it conveys the impression of a still, transparent sea, on the floor of which there lies an immutable human tableau. In both cases, moreover, this tableau has been created by a catastrophic storm. It may also be worthwhile to notice that the first line of the Shakespeare poem's first stanza runs, "Come unto these yellow sands," using two terms that figure in Percy's poem. There are, finally, several similarities between the representations of the two preceding voyages, in both of which are shown splendidly clad lords who dislike the idea of getting wet and a "master," seconded by a "good boatswain" in Shakespeare, who has more pressing matters in mind. An allusion? A borrowing? A coincidence? I'm not sure. I am inclined to believe that in 1765 Percy faced such a stanza as this:
   Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
      Its' fiftie fadom deip,
   And there ly a' our Scottish lords
      Sir Patrick at their feet.

This is the version Herd produced improved, according to my argument, by Lady Wardlaw. Percy might also have found the last two lines, as in a Motherwell MS,
   And there lies good Sir Andrew Wood,
      And a' the Scottish fleet.

We have already seen that Percy confronted--and rejected--this substitute hero. Placing the lords at Sir Patrick's feet seems to me, for reasons I have already given and for others I must soon deduce, to have been an improvement of Percy's. He may also have added the fifty fathoms in line 2. The same line appears in "The Jew's Daughter," another Scottish transmission. Since he printed that poem from a single manuscript (Reliques, 1:55), he lacked the license to tamper. But he could have transferred this line into "Sir Patrick Spence" where it is in fact, because of the nautical resonance, more appropriate. Of course, Dalrymple, who may, among his many interests, have had a passion for Shakespeare that I have not yet discovered, could have taken the fifty fathoms from "The Jew's Daughter" and added it to "Sir Patrick Spence"--or vice versa--before passing the two poems on. (24) In that case Percy inherited Shakespeare's transparent sea. At the very least, he recognized its congruence with the honor he wished to confer on his hero.

The third stanza of "Sir Patrick Spence" reminds me of the banquet scene in Macbeth, in which another Scottish hero (of sorts) questions an evil deed. The king, seeing Banquo's ghost, interrupts himself just as he is about to "sit ... [and] drink ... wine" at table with his courtiers, exclaiming, "Which of you have done this? ... Thou canst not say I did it," although he did, of course. Forms of "do" and "deed" echo throughout the play, almost always encompassed in doubt and uncertainty and evil. "If it were done," Macbeth says before the murder, "when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly." Once in confronting the witches, he asks, "What ist you do?" to be told, "A deed without a name." Before being overwhelmed in Macbeth's evil deeds, Lady Macduff cries out, "I have done no harm"--although, like the Scottish seamen, she will soon "cure to harme." And near the end of the play, Lady Macbeth, who, before the murder, had considered that she herself might have "done the deed," complains in her sleep, "What's done cannot be undone."

The third stanza of "Sir Patrick Spence" produces a question different from Macbeth's but equally bitter, a question to which "the king" is also the answer. It goes like this:
   O quha is this has don this deid,
      This ill deid don to me;
   To send me out this time o' the yeir,
      To sail upon the se?

This is, first of all, unique to Percy; the other versions, including Scott's, all run like Herd's and present Sir Patrick as asking a purely factual question, that is, who it was that told the king about him. Here, Sir Patrick, holding the king's own letter signed by the king himself, a letter that he has just read through, implies with his question that, surely, no one would ever do "this ill deid" which the king has done. Sir Patrick's question and the emphatic chiasmus with which it is enunciated--"don this deid, / This ill deid don"--are, again, unique to Percy. Whether you find my suggestion of a Shakespearean echo convincing or not, the composition of the stanza--or, more precisely, of its first two lines--may be confidently attributed to Percy. I believe this in part because Scottish patriotism, which was running very high in the late eighteenth century, (25) would have inhibited Lady Wardlaw or David Dalrymple from exposing a Scottish king, no matter what his English reputation might be, to such reproof and hatred--just as it would have prompted them to respect the Scottish nobility. Dalrymple himself assumed the title Lord Hailes, we may remember.

The third Shakespearean echo I have observed recalls Hamlet and actually two or three moments in that play. I begin with a ballad stanza spoken by Ophelia, which Percy incorporated virtually unchanged into "The Friar of Orders Gray," a poem mostly his own, which he included in the section of his Reliques, "Ballads that Illustrate Shakespeare":
   How shoud I your true love know
      From another one?
   By his cockle hat and staff,
      And his sandal shoon.

If to this stanza, which Percy improved for his own poem in a couple of small ways--spelling "shoon" "shoone," for instance--we add a comment Hamlet made to one of the young players, "Your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last by the altitude of a chopine," we can approach quite closely to Percy's creative activities. A chopine has a cork sole-and-heel. With this in mind, I suggest that Percy transformed "cockle hat" to " cork-heild," transposed "hat" and "shoon," and transformed a stanza somewhat like this one from Jamieson's Popular Ballads--
   Laith, laith were our good Scots lords
      To weet their leathern shoon;
   But or the morn at fair day-light,
      Their hats were wat aboon--

to this:
   O our Scots nobles were richt laith
      To weet their cork-heild schoone;
   Bot lang owre a' the play were playd,
      Thair hats they swam aboone.

If we recall, further, The Tempest and the scorn of foppish aristocrats that it presents--or young Osric, perhaps, whose hat was the object of Hamlet's repeated mockery--we can find in this stanza a rich Shakespearean plaid.

Hamlet also occurs to me when I read its third line. I have not combed all the rest of Child's or Percy's ballads, but in the number that I have examined I have never seen this figure, that is, likening a real action to the action of a play. The most famous of many such references in Hamlet is the hero's resolve: "The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." Earlier in the same speech, he speaks of "creatures sitting at a play." And at almost the moment that his play, imitating his father's death, unfolds before the king, Hamlet's friend, Horatio, promises, "the whilst this play is playing," to study the king's response to it. These examples will stand, I hope, for many more figures linking life to drama, examples that could be drawn from other Shakespeare plays besides Hamlet.

Dalrymple, a highly educated and intelligent man, Percy's "ingenious friend," we may recall, no doubt knew Hamlet and no doubt knew the figure here drawn from drama. But I have turned quite a lot of pages of his writings--and there are a lot--and I have not noticed many references or, indeed, much of a concern for England's greatest poet. (26) Percy, on the other hand, loved Shakespeare, whom he described as "our great dramatic poet" (Reliques, 1:152), and devoted a whole section of the Reliques to poems related to his works (Reliques, 1:151-246). Three of these are derived from Hamlet. If I am right, Percy brought his love of Shakespeare creatively to bear on this stanza, thus enforcing his exaltation of his hero--here as throughout the poem--at the expense of the Scottish nobility that most of the Scottish bards--not all--later described as "gude," "good," "guid," "brau," and "braw." Only Percy--and his follower, Scott, who also called the lords "gude"--stuck these grandees where they belong, at the feet of Sir Patrick Spence.

There is one more matter, described with some scorn as "the art of the fripperer" by T.F. Henderson (Minstrelsy, 1:218)--that is, the imposition of such modern items as "eldern knight," "fans," "gold kems," and "cork-heild shoone"--that requires attention. These apparent modernisms prompted a fine, diffident Scots antiquarian, David Laing, to call the poem with apparent regret "a modern imitation" and tentatively to second Chambers's attribution of it to "Lady Wardlaw ... who died in 1727, aged fifty." (27) I believe that I have destroyed this attribution. I may add to what I have already proposed that Lady Wardlaw, as might have been expected, displayed in her one acknowledged work, Hardyknute, the greatest respect for members of her class and, furthermore, that satire of any kind seems to have been foreign to her genius. Still, what Henderson has mocked as frippery is in or on the poem. How did it get there?

If the poem was first set down in 1589 or so, as Henderson and I believe, the author could probably not have had access to any of it--except possibly for the "eldern knight." The Shakespearean stuff is clearly out of bounds: Macbeth was produced in England after James had moved there as James I; Hamlet, dating from around 1600, also seems a little late; The Tempest was produced around 1610; and the First Folio was printed in 1623. Heels on men's fancy shoes--not to speak of heels made of cork--seem to have become fashionable only at the end of the sixteenth century. (28) The woman's fan that "Sir Patrick Spence" presents came into fashion in Scotland, or so I have surmised, no earlier. There is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth sporting this feminine accessory around 1590, but the convention must have taken a while to become established--as it was, for instance, in Restoration drama. (29) Medieval women apparently adorned their hair with gold and jewels, (30) and several inhabitants of early ballads spent time combing their yellow hair, but these showy ornamental combs, like the Scots nobles' cork-heild shoone, I believe to be products of the imagination. "Why not the first author's imagination?" I find in the first author's conception of this poem a deep bitterness aimed at kingly impunity, which is also evident in "Young Waters" and "The Bonny Earl of Murray," a bitterness aimed, not at the nobles, but specifically at the king. This aspect of the conception strengthens my determination to place the origin of "Sir Patrick Spence," like Henderson, soon after 1589. That means that I must deny the first author all or most of the modern improvements.

"But what about Lady Wardlaw or David Dalrymple?" Both of them knew about ladies' fans, admittedly, and either might have conceived of the gold combs: Lady Wardlaw, as Hardyknute makes clear, was deeply interested in human attire. But the intense satiric implications of these objects seem, not merely beyond her powers, but contrary to her feelings. And Dalrymple too, I believe, would have shrunk from such a presentation of Scots lords and ladies. It was, if I am right, the prickly Englishman who inherited a bitter representation of the Scots king, extended it to include the Scots nobilility as well and, in the process, created a powerful foil for Sir Patrick Spence. The "eldern knight," whose venerability lends force to the praise of the hero, might have been added by Dalrymple--as a replacement for "a bonny boy," "a yellow-haired man," or an "Irish knight." This revision seems to me, however, to be one more echo from Hamlet, recalling the doting Polonius--or, perhaps, good old Gonzalo from The Tempest?--and thus another of Percy's improvements.

"Sir Patrick Spence," then, is a poem of Scottish origin and Scottish nurture that was completed, in the inspiring presence of the greatest English poet, by Thomas Percy.

A fine student of Scottish antiquities, William Montgomerie, complained that ballads were musical works, works thus of public performance and transmission, and that Percy's intervention--and Child's too--were "negligible in folk lore" although they might be "valuable as literature." (31) With this judgment--except for its tone--I heartily agree. Although "Sir Patrick Spence" was conceived first as a literary work, if I am right, and written down around 1589 by a poet probably in or near the Scottish court, it was soon adopted by the people, who sang it--with developing variations--in pubs and homes and along the king's highway. David Graham wrote to Percy, in a letter that I have already mentioned, that "one evening at a bottle I was humming two lines of the song"--that is, a musical setting of "Sir Patrick Spence" (Letters, 155-57). It was on this occasion, he explains, "as the conversation had been upon Brave sir Andrew Wood, I put Sir Andrew Wood in the place of young Patrick Spence," to the gratification of a gentleman in the company whose name was Wood. Sir Walter Scott describes two tunes for this ballad, one "to which the words are commonly sung," and another which has a "nautical turn" (Minstrelsy, 1:217). An air for "Sir Patrick Spence" was printed, by the way, in the fifth volume of Child's Ballads (5:415). We may notice, especially from Graham's testimony, not only that the poem was orally transmitted during his life time, but that this transmission gave license to improvisation. Actually, as its eighteenth-and-nineteenth century versions attest, the Scots encouraged changes in "Sir Patrick Spence" even after it had been printed in the Reliques.

Prefixed to both early publications of another Scottish creation, "Gil Morris," Percy has informed us, there appeared this invitation: "any reader that can render it more correct or complete" was encouraged to do so. In consequence of this invitation, Percy reported, sixteen verses were produced and "handed about in manuscript," which, he went on to say, "are here inserted in their proper places" (Reliques, 3:91). And, although "Sir Patrick Spence" was born to a literary life and passed as a manuscript through the hands of Lady Wardlaw and then through the hands of David Dalrymple, it led a second, a popular, life as well--even losing its name as it was passed along. That is, until Percy presented it, transformed into our poem, in his Reliques. To finish the story, after Percy, it became still more widely submitted, in one form and another, to popular transmission.

Now and for all time, however, "Sir Patrick Spence" is the poem Percy brought to literary perfection, a poem that trails behind it a rich, generally apprehensible tradition, a tradition partly musical, as the residual "O" at the beginnings of lines 3, 17, 23, 29, 33, and 37 implies, partly medieval, as the old stanza Shakespeare called "eight and six" proclaims, and, of course, deeply Scots. But English for all that, English through and through. It is, thanks to Thomas Percy, a literary treasure available in one reliable form to all English-speaking people.

Rice University


(1) Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, ed. Henry B. Wheatley (London: Allen and Unwin, 1927), 1:98-102. Hereafter cited as Reliques. This edition, which was reprinted from that of 1886, was derived from Percy's 1794 edition. It will be my primary source for Percy's poems; however, when the edition makes a difference, I will refer specifically to the earlier editions--those of 1765 (the first), 1767, and 1775.

(2) Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, ed. T.F. Henderson (New York: Scribners, 1902), 1:215-30. Hereafter cited as Minstrelsy. Most later editors have followed Percy and Scott in both the substance and placing of these stanzas.

(3) This version and many, but not all, others appear in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. Francis James Child (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1884), 2:17-32. Hereafter cited as Child. All my references to versions other than Percy's, except when otherwise indicated, can be found here.

(4) See The Correspondence of Thomas Percy and David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes, ed. A.F. Falconer, The Percy Letters, 5 (Lousiana State U. Press, 1954), esp. 38-61. Hereafter cited as Letters. I will consider Dalrymple's part in the composition of "Sir Patrick Spence" in the course of this essay.

(5) David Herd, ed., Ancient and Modern Scots Songs (Edinburgh: Martin and Wotherspoon,1769), 243. See also the Motherwell MS, Child, 2:22.

(6) Noted by Henderson in Minstrelsy, 1:218.

(7) See, for example, Ancient Songs and Ballads, 3rd edition, rev. W. Carew Hazlitt (London: Reeves and Turner, 1877), xxv-xxvii and 217-18.

(8) Reliques, 1:102. This note appeared first in the 1775 edition of Percy's work. Dalrymple, with whom he discussed both of these poems--see Letters, esp. 42-43 and 48-50--seems to be the only possible candidate for the "ingenious friend." For confirmation, see Nick Groom, The Making of Percy's Reliques (Clarendon Press, 1999), 236.

(9) Bertram H. Davis, Thomas Percy (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 243-45.

(10) "The Romantic Scottish Ballads," 1-46 in Edinburgh Papers (London and Edinburgh: Chambers, 1861), 6-11. Although I seriously oppose the leading argument of this essay, I have found it to be both substantial and challenging.

(11) Letters, 39, understandably, prints "sits"--as in the Reliques---but Percy actually wrote "lies" in his letter, the original of which is held in The National Library of Scotland.

(12) Reliques, 1:99-100; Minstrelsy, 1:215-17; Child, 2:18-19. Bertrand Bronson, The Ballad as Song (U. of California Press, 1969), notes, 74 ff., that perfection in ballads, "where achieved, was recently achieved," and specifically suggests, 60 passim, that the beauty of "Sir Patrick Spence" was achieved late in its history.

(13) See Peter Berresford Ellis, Macbeth (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993), 109-14, for a pithy account of the linguistic situation in Scotland between 1057 and 1700.

(14) For an introduction to the beginnings of Scots-English poetry, see David McCordick, Scottish Literature (New York: Lang, 1996), 1:1-52, and, esp. for the persistence of Gaelic, "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy," 1:298-310. See also R.D.S. Jack and P.A.T. Rozendaal, The Mercat Anthology of Early Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Mercat, 1997), esp. "Critical Introduction," for an exposition of the strains troubling Scottish Literature, especially in the early times--strains which, following Percy, I am neglecting.

(15) See David Harris Willson, King James VI and I (Oxford: Alden Press, rpt. 1962), 89-90; and G.P.V. Akrigg, Letters of King James VI and I (U. of California Press, 1984), 97-101. See Helena Shire, Song, Dance, and Poetry at the Court of Scotland under James VI (Cambridge U. Press, 1969) for several possible candidates. See esp. 110 where Shire asserts, for example, that Alexander Montgomerie supported the king's foes in 1591.

(16) James did, however, write Sir Patrick Vans two letters, of which we have some record, concerning the general business of his marriage. See Akrigg, 473-74.

(17) (Edinburgh: Donald, 1997), 32-33.

(18) See, however, G.B. Harrison, ed., King James the First, Daemonologie and Newes from Scotland (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966), esp. Newes, 16-18.

(19) Willson prints "The Bonny Earl of Murray" entire, 107, in developing his account of this famous murder. See David C. Fowler, A Literary History of the Popular Ballad (Duke Univ. Press, 1968), who suggests that "Young Waters" was a derivative from "The Bonny Earl of Murray"--an altogether likely suggestion.

(20) Reliques, 1:140-150. This pattern occurs in both Percy's printed version (143) and in the famous folio manuscript that Wheatley printed (148) immediately following the Percy version.

(21) This pattern is also evident in the Percy version of "Gil Mortice" (Reliques, 1:96)--"Then up and spack the wylie nurse, / (The bairn upon hir knee)"--although not in the folio manuscript. Note esp. "wylie" in the first line and "knee" in the second--something that Chambers pointed out. "Gil Morrice" also gives a form of the first pattern I described: "The lady sat on castil wa'/Beheld baith dale and doun; / And there she saw Gil Morice' head / Cum trailing to the toun." To unravel these stylistic interconnections would require at least another essay.

(22) (Edinburgh: Donaldson, 1761). This is not the first edition, which was printed in 1724.

(23) I will take all my Shakespeare quotations from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1974). Fowler, 255-258, infers one poet, a "Scottish Master," from such echoes as I am aknowledging. In this opinion, which I oppose, he is following M.J.C. Hodgart, The Ballads (London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1950), who proposes "a gifted (eighteenth-century) poet" (David Dalrymple?) as the author. Although I argue for a developing authorship--of "Sir Patrick Spence," at any rate--I am deeply indebted to the work of both Fowler and Hodgart.

(24) See Dalrymple's Annals of Scotland (Edinburgh: Murray, 1776), 1:3 and 332, where, in discussing the fictions surrounding Macbeth, he acknowledges "the genius of Shakespeare." In the notes to Ancient Scottish Poems (Edinburgh: Balfour, 1770), Dalrymple makes several references to Shakespeare--to Falstaff and to A Midsummer Night's Dream on 314, for instance.

(25) Macpherson's Fragments and Fingal, which Dalrymple and many Scottish intellectuals befriended, emerged in 1760 and 1761, respectively--just four-or-five years before the Reliques. For an account of the relationship between Percy and Macpherson, see Groom, 61-105.

(26) Despite references in Dalrymple's Annals and Poems, which I have noted, I still detect a lukewarm appreciation for Shakespeare.

(27) Quoted by Wheatley (Reliques, 1:xlix). Wheatley had consulted Laing specifically on this question. Chambers had also noted that the two towns were near the residences of Lady Wardlaw.

(28) See R. Turner Wilcox, The Mode in Footwear (New York: Scribners, 1948), esp. 88-96 for cork-soled shoes. Men wore heels for riding after 1550, I gather; but, except for King Louis of France, who, being short, "had his heels built up with cork," p. 106, seem seldom to have worn heels of cork. Chopines, with either cork or wooden soles, seem to have been something we would call "pattens."

(29) Dorimant in Wycherly's Man of Mode, ca. 1670, speaks of annoying Loveit so much that she will break her fan. See F.W. Fairholt, Costume in England, rev. H.A. Dillon (London: Bell, 1885), 2:158-62. See also Valerie Cumming, A Visual History of Costume: The Seventeenth Century (London: B.T. Batsford, 1984): 23 passim.

(30) I gather from Fairholt, that women wore jewelry in their hair at least from around 1560--somewhat earlier than they started carrying Queen Elizabeth's folding fan. However, they "made little display of hair," 204, until the reign of Elizabeth. Mary G. Houston, Medieval Costume in England and France (London: Black, 1950), makes no mention of gold combs as adornment for the hair; but Venus, in Chaucer's House of Fame, did wear a comb of some kind in hers. In "Clerk Sanders," a comb, possibly as an ornament (Child, 2:156-67), is mentioned.

(31) "A Bibliography of Scottish Ballad Mss," Studies in Scottish Literature, 4, No. 1 (1966). Montgomerie also provides an account of the way a printed ballad can revert to an oral ballad, and then back, which has proven valuable to me. Fowler, who recognized, 126, that some popular ballads have literary origins, has insisted, 5-6, that we must avoid the "art" versus "folk" dichotomy.
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Author:Piper, William Bowman
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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