Popular British Ballads

As part of the MFA program I’m starting, I need to read and ‘explicate’ many poems. Although I have three years to complete the readings, I’m beginning now because I’m a nerdy book worm, un ratón de biblioteca, as they say in Spanish.

To make the project more interesting, I thought I’d share some of my observations of the poems I read. Let me make one disclaimer: I’ve never been a scholarly sort of person, and even though I’ve been a teacher and a student all my life, I’m more apt to share my gut reactions rather than a true literary analysis. Unless a professor requires it, I doubt I’ll read what real literary critics have to say about the poems. Hope that’s OK with everyone.

Popular British Ballads begin my list. Reading these ballads is like getting a glimpse into long ago daily life in the British Isles. The first one I read is titled Lord Randal. It’s Scottish, from the 1500s, passed down to us by Francis James Childs, who compiled and edited The English and Scottish Ballads, 1892-1898. You can read every single one of them right here.

The end words of each stanza are the same: son, man, soon, down, and in fact each line ends with the same phrase or question, because it’s a song.

A young man named Lord Randal is asking his mother to make his bed because he is sick at heart and he soon will die, both from heartache and from poisoning.

The mother goes on to ask him what he’s going to leave behind to all his loved ones. At first those stanzas made the mother appear to me like a mercenary sort of mom, the kind who ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’ (Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic). I thought, is she kidding? The kid is dying and she’s already divvying up the loot?

But more than likely death was more a part of everyday life then, and practical matters like wills were discussed openly. The talk of leaving behind worldly possessions also adds to the pathos of the story, that such a handsome young man, and wealthy too, is dying.

Of course he says the girl who has double crossed him will only get ‘hell and fire.’

In addition to this version I found on Youtube, there are also Appalachian singers who’ve recorded many of these ballads, as the songs were passed down to them by their ancestors.

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Here’s a version I found on Youtube by poet and painter Michael Foster:

http://www.youtube.com/v/TeMPS-L94Dk&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0&color1=0xcc2550&color2=0xe87a9f&border=1

And here’s the ballad:

Lord Randal

“O where ha you been, Lord Randal, my son?
And where ha you been, my handsome young man?”
“I ha been at the greenwood; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie down.”

“An wha met ye there, Lord Randal, my son?
And wha met ye there, my handsome young man?”
“O I met wi my true-love; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi huntin, and fain wad lie down.”

“And what did she give you, Lord Randal, My son?
And wha did she give you, my handsome young man?”
“Eels fried in a pan; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi huntin, and fein wad lie down.”

“And what gat your leavins, Lord Randal my son?
And wha gat your leavins, my handsome young man?”
“My hawks and my hounds; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi huntin, and fein wad lie down.”

“And what becam of them, Lord Randal, my son?
And what becam of them, my handsome young man?
“They stretched their legs out and died; mother mak my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi huntin, and fain wad lie down.”

“O I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son!
I fear you are poisoned, my handsome young man!”
“O yes, I am poisoned; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie down.”

“What d’ye leave to your mother, Lord Randal, my son?
What d’ye leave to your mother, my handsome young man?”
“Four and twenty milk kye; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.”

“What d’ye leave to your sister, Lord Randal, my son?
What d’ye leave to your sister, my handsome young man?”
“My gold and my silver; mother mak my bed soon,
For I’m sick at the heart, an I fain wad lie down.”

“What d’ye leave to your brother, Lord Randal, my son?
What d’ye leave to your brother, my handsome young man?”
“My houses and my lands; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.”

“What d’ye leave to your true-love, Lord Randal, my son?
What d’ye leave to your true-love, my handsome young man?”
“I leave her hell and fire; mother mak my bed soon,
For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.”

5 thoughts on “Popular British Ballads

  1. Jo says:

    Oh I know this, how funny, it’s like a nursery rhyme to me. I hope you have stuff a wee bit more interesting than this to sink your teeth into though……. 😉

    Like

  2. dale says:

    Partly, yes, death was more commonplace, less hidden away, but I think it’s more that what matters in medieval England, as in modern China, is the family: the head of the family dying is first of all a family event, only second a personal event. One of the refreshing things about medieval literature, for me, is getting outside of individualism.

    So why did she poison him, I’ve always wondered? Why doesn’t the poem address that? Is it supposed to be obvious, or is it supposed not to matter, or is it supposed to be in play in your mind? That’s the mystery for me.

    Like

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