The Scottish ballad tradition contains some of the most haunting and beautiful poetry ever composed, a fact all the more striking since the authorship of most of it is anonymous. Fans of American folk, bluegrass, and country music will find it the lyrical origins of our most vital body of song, expressing a powerful sense of death and loss. “Sir Patrick Spens” has this, and something more: a protest of political power. It is a powerful indictment of a king’s power to send his subjects off to pointless death’s on fool’s errands.
The king sits in Dumferling town
Drinking the bluid-red wine:
‘O whar will I get a guid sailor
To sail this ship of mine?’
Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king’s richt knee:
‘Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That sails upon the sea.’
The king has written a braid letter
And signed it wi’ his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
Was walking on the sand.
The first line that Sir Patrick read
A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick read,
The tear blinded his ee.
‘O wha is this has done this deed,
This ill deed done to me,
To send me out this time o’the year,
To sail upon the sea?
‘Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
Our guid ship sails the morn.’
‘O say na sae, my master dear,
For I fear a deadly storm.’
‘Late, late yestre’en I saw the new moon
Wi’the old moon in his arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
That we will come to harm.’
O our Scots nobles were richt laith
To weet their cork-heeled shoon,
But lang or a’ the play were played
Their hats they swam aboon.
O lang, lang may their ladies sit,
Wi’their fans into their hand,
Or ere they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to the land.
O lang, lang may the ladies stand
Wi’their gold kems in their hair,
Waiting for their ain dear lords,
For they’ll never see them mair.
Half o’er, half o’er to Aberdour
It’s fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies guid Sir Patrick Spens
Wi’the Scots lords at his feet.
In the first stanza we meet the king, who “sits in Dumferling town/Drinking the blude-reid wine.” Kings sit on thrones and hold court, but this king apparently occupies the whole town, signifying how places become identified with “great” political figures (think “Washington”). His wine is “blude-reid” because he is a parasite living off of the blood of the people he rules. It is no accident that the tyrannical king Vlad Dracula, famous for his enthusiasm for torture, bequeathed his name to the most famous fictional vampire. The king wants someone to “sail this ship of mine.” The ship of state is considered the sovereign’s personal property. No sooner is the question asked then someone at court pipes up to volunteer someone else for the job, in this case “an eldern knicht” who “Sat at the king’s richt knee.” It’s always the same story, old men sending off younger ones to die. The knicht may have been a warrior once, but is now just another courtier. He is a right-knee man, which is a much lower stature than a right-hand man. Today the knight would be a security adviser or a pentagon bureaucrat.
When we first meet our titular hero, he is innocently “walking on the sand,” which contrasts with the king’s sitting at the seat power. He has received a letter from the king, who “signed it wi’ his hand.” It is the same in Dylan Thomas’ “The Hand that Signed the Paper,” which declares, “Great is the hand that holds dominion over/Man by a scribbled name.” The hand is a metonymn for political power. The signature is proof of guilt in a contract killing. The king is represented by his limbs, his hand and knee. His body is the body politic (an idea illustrated on the frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan), and his subjects are nothing but a multitude of appendages which may be used, severed, and then disposed with. Other characters in the poem are known by their accessories, tools by which ordinary people live, such as the sailors’ shoes and hats, the latter of which will be found swimming on the water, signaling their fate. At the end of the poem we do find reference to an appendage not the king’s: “thair lies Sir Patrick Spens/Wi’ the Scots lords at his feit.” This is a morbid parody of the opening scene of the king with his knights at court.
True to the Scots ballad tradition, “Sir Patrick Spens” highlights the experience of women, who are as affected by the adventurism of government that sends young men out to die as the men themselves. Two stanzas are given to the ladies, wives and mothers who bear the brunt of the loss when the state demands sacrifice. In the poem they represent an alternative body politic which, sitting or standing, may not be made whole because their men have been severed from them.
The poem leaves out a great deal of the story, such as the nature of the mission and how the crew died, but we can imagine any of the innumerable suicide missions a king can dream up. The point is that the brave knight met Leviathan and was destroyed. But Sir Patrick has the last laugh: we know his name, which is immortalized in the ballad, but not that of the ruler.