“Barbara Allan” is a traditional ballad that originated in Scotland. The first written reference to it occurred in 1666 in The Diary of Samuel Pepys, where Pepys praises it after watching a stage performance sung by an actress. It appeared in a collection of popular songs compiled in 1740 by Allan Ramsay, the Tea-Table Miscellany, and then it was included in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry in 1765. But like most ballads, it probably existed in oral tradition long before Pepys’s reference or these eighteenth-century publications.
As are all traditional ballads, “Barbara Allan” is a narrative song, or a song that tells a story. Ballads tell their stories directly, with an emphasis on climactic incidents, by stripping away those details that are not essential to the plot. In this case, the ballad tells of a woman who rejects her lover because he has “slighted” her and hurt her feelings. As is typical, “Barbara Allan” does not give many details about the background incident, but merely refers to it as the event that triggers the action. Barbara’s lover dies of a broken heart from her rejection of him, and after his death, she realizes her mistake. That realization results in her own death, also of a broken heart. Their tragic love seems to live on, though, in the symbolic intertwining of the rose and brier that grow from their graves.
It was in and about the Martinmas time,
When the green leaves were a-falling,
That Sir John Graeme, in the West Country,
Fell in love with Barbara Allan.
He sent his man down through the town, 5
To the place where she was dwelling:
“O haste and come to my master dear,
Gin ye be Barbara Allan.”
O hooly, hooly rose she up,
To the place where he was lying, 10
And when she drew the curtain by:
“Young man, I think you’re dying.”
“O it’s I’m sick, and very, very sick,
And ‘tis a’ for Barbara Allan.”
“O the better for me ye s’ never be, 15
Though your heart’s blood were a-spilling.
“O dinna ye mind, young man,” said she,
“When ye was in the tavern a drinking,
That ye made the healths gae round and round,
And slighted Barbara Allan?” 20
He turned his face unto the wall,
And death was with him dealing:
“Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
And be kind to Barbara Allan.”
And slowly, slowly raise she up, 25
And slowly, slowly left him,
And sighing said, she could not stay,
Since death of life had reft him.
She had not gane a mile but twa,
When she heard the dead-bell ringing, 30
And every jow that the dead-bell geid,
It cried, “Woe to Barbara Allan!”
“O mother, mother, make my bed!
O make it saft and narrow!
Since my love died for me to-day, 35
I’ll die for him to-morrow.”
They buried her in the old churchyard,
And Sir John’s grave was nigh her.
And from his heart grew a red, red rose,
And from her heart a brier. 40
They grew to the top o’ the old church wall,
Till they could grow no higher,
Until they tied a true love’s knot—
The red rose and the brier.
The poem begins by noting that Sir John Graeme fell in love with Barbara Allan in the autumn. The “green leaves” suggest a romantic, pastoral setting appropriate for the lovers, however the fact that they are “falling” suggests a note of sadness to this affair right from its start.
Sir John sends a servant to fetch Barbara Allan. The servant asks her to hurry and go to Sir John if she is indeed the woman for whom the message is intended, Barbara Allan.
Barbara Allan does not hurry, as shown by the repetition of the word “hooly,” which emphasizes her slow movement. She goes to Sir John and finds him lying behind a curtain, apparently on his deathbed. She does not express any pity for him, but instead states, matter of factly, that he appears to be dying.
Sir John agrees with Barbara Allan and adds to her observation the fact that the cause of his sickness is his spurned love for her.
Again, instead of expressing sympathy, Barbara Allan replies coldly. She states that even though Sir John is spilling forth his love, it would have been better for her if he had never existed. The phrase “heart’s blood were a-spilling” can suggest several things: Sir John’s death, his broken heart, and his spoken words of love.
In this fifth stanza, Barbara Allan explains her coldness to Sir John by referring to an incident during which her feelings were hurt. She asks whether he remembers that he “slighted” her, or treated with indifference and disdain, at the tavern. One can imagine that Sir John had been drinking too much, toasting too many other people, and ignoring his
- A film strip titled Three Traditional British Ballads was released by Educational Audiovisual, Inc. in 1973.
- Folkways Records and Service Corp. released audio cassettes of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, volumes 1-4 in 1964.
- A videotape titled The Ballad and the Source of Film is available from the Center for Media and Independent Living at the University of California Extension in Berkely.
- A compact disc titled Virginia Traditions: Ballads from the British Tradition was released by Global Village Recordings in 1997.
true love. Barbara Allan is unable to forget this incident or forgive him for it.
Sir John does not deny the accusation that Barbara Allan makes. He turns away from her, presumably in sorrow for what he has done, and he passively accepts his death. His final words are a farewell to his friends and a request that they treat Barbara Allan with kindness. His gentle, sad acceptance of his fate and his blessing of Barbara Allan strike a sorrowful chord. His use of the foreign word “adieu” characterizes him as a well-bred gentleman. This portrayal of Sir John, along with his passivity, suggest that he deserves Barbara Allan’s pardon, not her continued condemnation. In this stanza, alliteration is used, with a “d” sound occurring in the words “death,” “dealing,” “adieu,” and “dear.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Barbara Allan leaves Sir John. Because the word “slowly” is used four times in this stanza, a dramatic tension builds. The listener is made to wait for Barbara Allan’s response to Sir John, since her actions take time to develop. Finally, as she goes, she sighs and remarks that she can not stay since “death” has taken hold of Sir John; it has deprived him of “life.” This is the final occurrence of Barbara Allan’s cruelty, her lack of sympathy for Sir John.
When Barbara Allan is only one or two miles away from Sir John, she hears his funeral bell ringing. In each strike of the bell, she hears a mournful note and feels regret for what she has done to cause the death of her true love.
Barbara Allan calls out in sadness, asking that her mother prepare a funeral bed for her, because she will die of a broken heart just as she caused Sir John to die for her.
Barbara Allan’s body is buried near Sir John, and a brier grows above her grave. The brier is a thorn bush, and it may be associated with Barbara Allan’s sharp treatment of Sir John. Also, like the crown of thorns worn by Jesus, it may be associated with martyrdom—in this case, Barbara Allan’s death for the cause of true love. Above Sir John’s grave, a red rose grows. Repetition of the word “red” emphasizes its symbolic significance; the red rose represents love. Here it stands for the true love that Sir John felt for Barbara Allan, a love strong enough to cause death. “Red” may also remind the reader of blood and pain. Sir John suffered emotional pain because of his love.
The last stanza symbolically represents the eternity of true love. Though Sir John and Barbara Allan have died, their love continues to grow. The brier and the rose bush climb the church wall, suggesting that the love reaches above earthly constraints. There, the two plants join in a lover’s knot, a symbol of eternal unity. In life after death, it seems, Barbara Allan and Sir John have been reunited.
Sudden death was much more common in the days when this poem was a popular song than it is today. Medical science had not identified virus or bacteria and had little knowledge of how the body fights disease. To an audience at that time, it would not have seemed at all unusual that a nobleman such as Sir John Graeme could be healthy one day and then be lying near death the next. This poem does not specify whether Sir John knew of his impending death when he sent his man to fetch Barbara Allan, but whether he knew how serious his condition was or not, this information is clearly held back from the reader. At first, there is no clear indication that he actually is dying: his illness is first mentioned by Barbara Allan, who bases her diagnosis on her first glance at him. Throughout stanzas 3 to 5, there is no independent information to let readers know whether Sir John’s condition is an actual illness or if his unrequited love for Barbara Allan is making him appear physically ill. Even after Sir John’s death in stanza 6, Barbara Allan behaves as if they are still engaged in clever banter, saying good-bye as if she were merely leaving for another appointment. The significance of death is played down. However, once the tolling of the dead-bell forces Barbara Allan to accept the reality of Sir John’s death, the shock she suffers brings her death just as swiftly as his appeared. While his fatal illness showed up suddenly in the poem because some information was held back (the poem’s narrator gave no indication of his fragile condition before Barbara Allan arrived to see him), her death is not just told with suddenness, it is sudden. In death, Sir John and Barbara Allan are finally happy with each other and able to achieve a peace in their relationship that they could not agree to in life.
Growth and Development
Barbara Allan matures during the course of this poem. Throughout the first seven stanzas, she treats Sir John Graeme’s love for her, and then his death, lightly. More serious to her than either of these is the insult that she felt when she thought that Sir John was ignoring her at the tavern. Even seeing him die before her eyes does not shake her lighthearted attitude. It is not until she is on her way home and hears the dead-bell ringing that she suddenly becomes aware of the seriousness of death. In that one instant, Barbara Allan realizes the cold, impersonal nature of the world, which carries out the course of life and death regardless of whether she feels it is right or not. This realization of death’s inevitability is so shocking to Barbara Allan that it kills her. Still, when the shock is over, she comes away having learned something from it. It is only after they are both dead that she is prepared to enter into a continuing relationship
Topics for Further Study
- This poem tells a story about a doomed love so strong that it is the last thing on Sir John’s mind as he dies and then it causes Barbara Allen to die of grief. Try to write a similar poem of doomed love. Write it in sections—not necessarily like the four-lined, numbered stanza used here—that will show the various elements of misunderstanding that keep lovers from recognizing their love until it’s too late. At the end, include a physical symbol of their love, like the knot of the rose and brier, that will continue after the lovers are gone.
- There have been numerous recordings of “Barbara Allan,” which was a folk song long before it was written out as a poem. If you have not heard it sung, make up your own music to accompany this poem. Add musical instrumentation if you can.
- Search through music that you know from today and find at least four songs that tell stories similar to “Barbara Allan.” Be ready to explain the similarities that you believe are present.
- “Barbara Allan” is a Scottish ballad published in the eighteenth century. Sir John is obviously a member of the aristocracy, sending “his man” down to the town, apparently from a castle. What do you think Barbara Allan’s social class is?
with Sir John. After their deaths, they both retain the same basic personalities that they had in life. Sir John is represented by the rose, the symbol of love (because he was lovesick for Barbara Allan), and she is represented by the thorny briar, because she was harsh and untouchable in life. Nonetheless, they end up bound together in a knot. In life, Barbara Allan could not accept her love for Sir John, but having lost him, she learns to value his love. By poem’s end, she has grown into a person who can bond with another while retaining her rough personality.
Love and Passion
The nature of the romance between Barbara Allan and Sir John Graeme is left open to interpretation, which may account for the poem’s enduring popularity throughout different cultures for nearly four centuries. On the surface, it seems to be a one-sided affair. Barbara Allan appears to be cruel to Sir John, withholding the love that he wants so desperately, even as he is drawing his final breaths. It would be easy to be angry at Barbara Allan for being so self-centered and fickle, because she places so much importance on the insult she believes she suffered when he stayed at the tavern with his friends and ignored her. To her, this insult seems more important than Sir John’s life. Barbara Allan only seems more superficial and unsympathetic when it is later revealed that she actually did love him—so much so, that losing him quickly kills her. Once it is clear that she loved him as much as he loved her, her treatment of him on him deathbed becomes more than cruel, but mean to a point of self-destruction. There is another way to look at their relationship, though. It could be that Barbara Allan does not really slight Sir John at all, that her behavior at his bedside is part of their mutual mating ritual. She may be acting properly within the rules of their particular relationship. One indication of this is their union after death, symbolized by the rose and brier: if Sir John felt mistreated in life, it obviously did not hurt his feelings too much to spend eternity bound to her. His dialog in the fourth stanza can be read as his way of flirting, of making light of his serious illness by using it as an opportunity to flatter her, saying that he is sick for Barbara Allan. Her chilly rebuff of him in stanza 5 would not then be a case of mocking the ill, but of returning lighthearted banter with the same. If this is the case, their relationship is quite evenly balanced, a case of opposites—like the rose and brier—attracting, and not the tragedy that it might at first seem.
“Barbara Allan” uses the standard ballad structure, an abcb quatrain (a four-line stanza with rhymes occurring at the end of lines two and four). The ballad stanza also typically alternates in meter, so that the first and third lines of each quatrain have four stresses, and the second and fourth lines have three stresses. “Barbara Allan” holds to this pattern, as is shown in the following example:
They grew to the top o’ the old church wall,
Till they could grow no higher ,
Until they tied a true love’s knot—
The red rose and the brier.
The rhymes in this last stanza are “higher” and “brier,” and the metrical stresses follow the 4-3-4-3 quatrain pattern.
“Barbara Allan” is a piece of Scotland’s history, having been a traditional folk ballad at least through the 1600s (although it did not actually appear in print until 1740). During that time, Scotland and England, which had been linked throughout much of their history, became even more closely united. In 1603, when Queen Elizabeth I of England died, she was followed on the throne by her cousin James, who was the son of the infamous Mary, Queen of Scots. James had been king of Scotland since 1576, when he was ten years old, and he had actively ruled the country since 1581: with his ascension to the English throne, he was, simultaneously, James VI of Scotland and James I of England. At the time, Scotland was a small, poor country in comparison to England. Though it had four major universities, as compared with only two in England, Scotland had no major urban center that could even remotely compare with London, which was arguably the most important center of commerce in the world. Scotland was mostly agricultural, although its land was not entirely suited for growing crops: the most fertile area was the middle valley, where whole harvests were often lost due to a lack of knowledge about crop rotation. In the hills, known as the Highlands, the farming was even worse, and one of the main sources of income was robbery. The average income in Scotland was a fraction of what it was in England. At first, the Scots were happy to see their king going to rule England, believing that it would give them a greater voice in English/Scottish affairs. They found out, however, that James, who had been their king for a quarter of a century, quickly lost interest in them. He only went back to Scotland once between his coronation in England and his death in 1625. In the meantime, he did much to aggravate the Scots. One of their main grievances with him was about religion. Scotland was heavily Presbyterian, and the people resented James’ attempts to make the Church of England the required religion of their country. When James’ son Charles I tried, in 1637,
Compare & Contrast
- 1740: The third and last volume of Scottish philosopher David Hume’s three volume A Treatise of Human Nature was published. The public was indifferent, and Hume himself admitted that his work was “dead-born.”
Today: Hume is considered one of the greatest philosophers in history, and A Treatise of Human Nature is regarded as his most lofty achievement.
- 1740: America consisted of thirteen states that were ruled by the government of Great Britain. The British government fought a series of wars against France and Germany in North America to determine who would rule the colonies.
1776: The United States of America declared independence from Great Britain and fought the Revolutionary War in order to sever relationships.
Today: Although maintaining a good relationship with Great Britain, the United States is recognized as the world’s superpower.
- 1740: The city of Philadelphia was the only city in the New England colonies to have firefighting capabilities: three years earlier, Benjamin Franklin organized a bucket brigade of men who handed buckets of water from one to another to reach the source of a fire.
Today: Even the smallest municipalities have fire response vehicles. Most areas have water available via underground pipes.
- 1740: A series of roads connected the New England colonies from Charleston, South Carolina, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The roads were built to facilitate the growing postal system.
Today: The federal interstate highway system, inaugurated in 1956, links the forty-eight continuous states.
to require that a new prayer book be used throughout Scotland, there was rioting in the streets and violence against ministers as they tried to conduct services using the new book. Influential Scots signed a National Covenant to assert Scotland’s rights, and in 1640, a Scottish Army invaded and occupied several northern counties of England. It was Charles I’s dealings with Parliament to raise money to fight the Scots that brought tensions between the English monarchy and the elected government to a head: the result was the English Revolution, which spanned from 1640-1660. At first, the Scots were allied with the Parliament against the king’s forces. In 1646 Charles surrendered to the Scots, who turned him over to the Parliamentary forces, but he soon escaped. A second civil war began in 1648, when the king promised to stand behind the rights of Presbyterians. This time the Scots were on his side. Parliament’s troops defeated them, though, and England was declared a Commonwealth. The leader of the revolution, Oliver Cromwell, proved just as intolerant of Presbyterianism as the king had been, and Scotland was once again put in the position of being subjected to English rule. Soon after Cromwell died in 1658, the monarchy was restored, and Charles II became king of England and Scotland.
In 1707, the Scottish government voted itself out of existence. Scotland became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Lowland Scots, from the urban areas, supported the merger, because it would give the country representation in Parliament and assure Scotland the freedom to determine its own religion and legal system. Highland Scots resented what they perceived to be the loss of their freedom to England, and they led several violent rebellions, including major uprisings in 1708, 1715, and 1745. Following the 1745 rebellion, the British government forced the breakup of the clan system.
When “Barbara Allan” was published, there were many poets writing about death. Known today as the Graveyard School, these poets used imagery that came to be associated in the next century with Gothic writers such as Edgar Allan Poe: graves, churchyards, night, death, crumbling ruins, and ghosts. One of the most familiar poems from this era is Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Other poets who sometimes worked in this vein include Mark Akenside, William Cowper, William Shenstone, and Joseph Warton. During the last half of the eighteenth century, Scotland became one of the world’s great centers of intellectual thought. Edinburgh was home to a movement that came to be referred to as the Scottish Enlightenment. Outstanding thinkers who had roots in Scotland and who came out of that time period include philosopher David Hume, novelist Tobias Smollett, biographer James Boswell, and Scotland’s most honored poet, Robert Burns.
In his collection of essays titled The Ballad As Song, Bertrand Harris Bronson lists “Barbara Allan” as one of the seven most popular ballads in the world. As he puts it, the popularity of this ballad and most of the others on his list stems from their presentations of “love as a disease from which no one recovers.” The popularity of “Barbara Allan” can also be traced back to the seventeenth century, in a comment in Samuel Pepys’s diary. Pepys admired the work’s conciseness, its tight narrative structure, and the way that the tragic story is told quickly and with a strong ending. He declared that this song has an “eternal appeal.... It is as if the essence of hundreds of romantic love stories had been distilled into this one ballad. The tantalizing lack of details adds an element of mystery to the tragic Tate.”
Attesting to the continued popularity of “Barbara Allan,” twentieth-century critic Christine A. Cartwright examines this ballad in her article “‘Barbara Allen’: Love and Death in an Anglo-American Narrative Folksong.” Cartwright discusses current versions of the ballad that exist in the United States, noting that the ballad’s theme, the tragedy of true love, appears in contemporary country-western music. In her analysis, she points out the existence of opposing forces in the poem’s symbols and in its literal meaning. Since love and death are the paradoxical themes of the ballad, Cartwright calls to her reader’s attention the parallel, opposing images of the green fields and the graveyard, and of the red rose and the thorny “brier.”
David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing at several community colleges in Illinois, as well as a fiction writer and playwright. In the following essay, Kelly explains that the role-playing that goes on in Barbara Allan’s relationship with Sir John Graeme is necessary in order for them to have a relationship at all.
The beauty of Barbara Allan’s story, the thing that makes it memorable, is that ultimately, outside of the sphere of life as we know it, she and John Graeme end up being true lovers, as indicated by the way the rose and brier that symbolize the two are intertwined forever more. The tragedy of Barbara Allan’s story is that she and he are unable to express their enduring love for each other while they are alive. Through the centuries, readers have come away from the poem with the simple message that someone who is cold in a love affair will live to regret it, a negative impression of Barbara Allan reinforced by the fact that she becomes, in a sense, a thorny, woody brier. It isn’t really fair, though, to think of her this way. The relationship described in this ballad is much more subtle and nuanced than the simplified understanding that sees her as a headstrong woman turning her back on a weakened, love-stricken man. It may not be an open or loving relationship that they have, but there are clear indications that the roles Barbara Allan and Sir John Graeme play are agreeable to both parties, and that it might be necessary for them to carry on these pretensions if they are to be together at all.
To gain a better appreciation of this ballad (or, really, of any story), readers need to give serious consideration to the differences between what the characters say and what they think. Barbara Allan’s insincerity is portrayed quite openly in this poem: she pretends to be uninterested in John Graeme’s fragile health, but that is a lie: later, when she hears the tolling of the bells, she is so overcome with grief that she knows it will mean the death of her. Some published versions have this ballad ending with stanza 9, after Barbara Allan announces her impending death, leaving out the “true love’s knot” that symbolizes their reunion. This serves to emphasize her regret for the way that she has treated him, but by leaving out this final symbolic act that balances the truth against their words and actions, it reduces this to a common story of misdirected flirtation. Their ultimate union tells us that theirs was a true love, and, therefore, that all of Barbara Allan’s cold behavior throughout the poem is a lie. Throughout the poem, she masks her feelings, but so does John Graeme, and we will have to consider why.
First, however, we should consider the evidence of Sir John’s own lack of sincerity. He does stay consistent with his word throughout the poem—in that their reunion in the afterlife does, in fact, match his claims of love—but, despite the sincerity of his feelings, his claims of love still ring false. For instance, why is he dying? He says in stanza 4 that he is sick for Barbara Allan. While it is true that in poetry emotional distress often manifests itself as physical illness (as it does for Barbara Allan in the end), we are not informed of any great emotional shock that is killing Sir John Graeme. He is deathly ill before her arrival at his sick bed, which seems to indicate two possibilities. He may have been rejected by Barbara Allan earlier, before the time covered by this poem, although it starts with him falling for her in the first stanza; but if she had previously rendered him a flat-out rejection strong enough to kill him, would she come when called for, or be so cheerful when she arrived? The more simple and likely explanation is that Sir John is bedridden with an actual physical ailment, but is attributing his illness to love in an attempt to romantically flatter her by describing the powerful hold she has over him.
The Sir John Graeme we see is a bit of a ham, prone to overstating his love and his sorrow. In the modern world, anyone who tried turning to the wall and groaning, “Adieu, adieu,” would be accused of the worst kind of overreacting; reading other ballads from the sixteenth century, one gets the impression that, even though they were in some ways more sentimental times, Sir John’s flamboyance would have been excessive even then. Readers have to reconcile the John Graeme who we see in the poem, who claims to be wasting away for love, with the one Barbara Allan describes, who has ignored her while drinking with his friends in the tavern. And just why would his realization of his love for her coincide with his dying? Perhaps he is overcome by fever. Perhaps, taking a final inventory of his life and separating the shallow from the meaningful, he can at last see Barbara Allan shine. The most likely answer, though—the one that does not require huge doses of “poetic license” to bend the laws of science or emotion—holds that Sir John’s love for Barbara Allan becomes no more or less superficial than it ever was, but that his exaggerated claims of love are part of the pattern they have established
What Do I Read Next?
- The definitive collection of ballads such as “Barbara Allan” is Francis James Childs’s collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. It was originally published by Houghton Mifflin in ten volumes between 1882 and 1898. In 1965, Dover Publications issued a condensed five-volume reprint.
- The poetry of the 1600s, when “Barbara Allan” was a popular song ballad, is collected in Signet Classic’s 1974 collection Poets of the 17th Century, edited by John Broadbent. Volume I is arranged by the major poets, while Volume II is organized around themes and historic events.
- Katharine Lee Bates compiled a one-volume collection called Ballad Book for publication in 1890. It divides traditional ballads into three categories: “Ballads of Superstition,” “Ballads of Tradition,” and “Romantic and Domestic Ballads,” with the last section including “Barbara Allan.” Books for Libraries Press reissued the book in 1969.
- The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-speaking World was edited by Albert B. Friedman and published in 1956.
- MacEdward Leach’s 1955 collection, The Ballad Book, published by A. S. Barnes and Co., is interesting because it is cross-cultural, with selections from England, Scotland, and the United States.
- Birkinn Publications has issued a recent (1998) paperback by David Kerr Cameron, illustrated by Barbara Robertson, titled The Ballad and the Plough; A Portrait of the Life of the Old Scottish Farmtowns.
for their relationship, just as her forceful rejection of him conforms to her traditional role.
Looking at their relationship as an elaborate masquerade helps us appreciate the complexity of what they have together. John Graeme is not really dejected: “dejected” is just a part that he acts out.
“... [Barbara Allan] is an isolated loser in a game that only she and the dead man knew they were playing.”
Barbara Allan, likewise, is not as uncaring as she pretends to be, which could account for her ultimate grief, when she realizes that the game will not be going on for one more round. Contemporary readers are likely to frown upon such falsehood within a romantic relationship, feeling that these people are treating love less seriously than they should. We should consider, though, that role-playing offers Barbara Allan and John Graeme opportunities.
Writing in her book The Female Eunuch, feminist and social critic Germaine Greer explained unequal romantic relations this way: “Love is not possible between inferior and superior, because the base cannot free their love from selfish interest, as the desire either for security or social advantage, and, being lesser, they themselves cannot comprehend the faculties in the superior which are most worthy of love. The superior being on the other hand cannot demean himself by love for an inferior.” Greer was writing about different social levels assigned to men and women; the same dynamic would be even more intense between unequal parties in a feudal system. It is fair to assume, from the fact that Sir John has a title and a servant, and because Barbara Allan’s home is dismissed lightly as “that place where she was dwelling,” that they belong to different social classes, and, whatever the rules of their class system, this inequity needs to be corrected if they are to have any kind of a meaningful relationship. The roles they play with one another allow them to face each other as equals. As his title empowers him, so too does her callousness empower her; just as he can ignore her in the social setting of the tavern, she can ignore him in the intimacy of his sick room. It is not the healthiest of relationships, but it does create a sort of balance that is absent in bad romances. The problem, of course, is that this charade allows no place for Sir John Graeme or Barbara Allan to directly convey their true feelings. He has to be too sweet and she has to be too sour in order for them to meet in the middle.
When he dies, Barbara Allan is stunned to find herself frozen in the role that she was playing for her momentary advantage: that of the blithe uncaring vixen who laughed off the love that Sir John Graeme professed with his last breath. Like a loser in a game of hot potato or musical chairs, she finds herself isolated, with time having run out before she expected it; she is an isolated loser in a game that only she and the dead man knew they were playing. If one feels that she toyed with Sir John’s love, and that he was powerless under her control, it is difficult to not feel contempt for Barbara Allan. However, if one believes that she is a victim of circumstances who has lost her one true conspirator—as well as her one true love—then it is difficult not to feel pity for her. It is this range of possible interpretations that has allowed this ballad to endure throughout the generations, while others have fallen away. Everyone knows at least one couple like this, who can’t even agree about loving each other and who will go on arguing about their love until the very end.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Carolyn Meyer holds a Ph.D. in modern British and Irish literature and has taught contemporary literature at several Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto. In the following essay, Meyer explains the timeless appeal of “Barbara Allan.”
No other traditional folk ballad has been so widely dispersed, so variously reinterpreted, nor so thoroughly acculturated as “Barbara Allan.” Number one atop Bertrand Bronson’s list of the most popular ballads, it exists in 98 recorded versions in West Virginia alone, and from its English and Scottish origins, it has migrated as far afield as the Caribbean, Canada, and Texas. Barbara, as the archetypal slighted mistress who is both agent and victim of love’s impetuosity and folly, is known worldwide under a range of pseudonyms and aliases, having been reinvented time and time again (and, according to John Minton in a Southern Folklore article, having even been masculinized as a love-struck African-American teenager named Boberick Allan). Her story has refused to disappear from the margins of modern consciousness and appeals to us today much as it did to eighteenth-century Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith, Norwegian composer Edvard Greig (who wrote a melody for its lyrics), and English diarist Samuel Pepys, who, in 1666, lauded the “perfect pleasure” he experienced on first hearing the “little Scotch song of Barbara Allan.” Even contemporary American novelist Joyce Carol Oates has confessed to being haunted by it, noting in her essay “‘In the Fifth Act’: the Art of the English and Scottish Traditional Ballads” that “If I am alone and I become aware of myself humming or singing under my breath, why is it likely to be ‘Barbara Allan’?” One answer to its eternal and universal appeal may lie in what critic Alan Bold has called “the masterly concision of its narrative,” for no sooner do its lovers meet than they are parted, and no sooner is love spurned than its loss is bitterly repented. Barbara and Sir John Graeme do not merely experience love in all its extremes and malformations, they literally give up their lives for it. This is an intense, uncommon and visceral passion—love on a grand scale in a short span—made more intense through the brevity of the ballad’s eleven stanzas. The volcanic force of its story line is further offset by the ballad idiom itself, with its incongruously sentimental commonplaces, stark simplicity, and childlike naivete. “Barbara Allan,” like the ballads Oates considers more generally in her essay, speaks with primitive authority to the deep recesses of the human imagination, becoming what she calls a “fantasy of the unconscious” where the impossible is presented “as if it were quite natural; as if, in fact, it belonged to the day-side and not the night-side of our existence.” Concise though the ballad may be, the timeless appeal of “Barbara Allan” also resides in its biting dramatic irony and in its distillation of supreme romantic tragedy. It survives not merely as song but as archetype—the essence of every Tate of love gone wrong ever told, a pre-blues blues song for all ages. Its echoes can be heard in everything from Henry James’s “Longstaff’s Marriage,” which appropriates and adapts its plot, to William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, which uses its melody as backdrop to Cathy and Heathcliff’s similarly themed story of frustrated love, destructive pride, and embitterment.
What mattered most to the illiterate and pre-literate folk responsible for ballad composition and transmission was the story itself, told with a sometimes mesmerizing and dream-like discontinuity, a disregard for character motivation, and a singsong repetitiousness that made the twists and turns of its plot easier to remember. No exception to the rule, “Barbara Allan” is written in the standard four-line
“[‘Barbara Allan’] survives not merely as song but as archetype—the essence of every Tate of love gone wrong ever told, a pre-blues blues song for all ages.”
ballad stanza of alternating tetrameter and trimeter, with rhyme between the second and fourth lines. Most ballads begin, as Thomas Gray observed, “in the fifth act”—in medias res—just as the story reaches its climax. In this regard, the ballad form has much in common with the modern short story, which also begins near its climax and “often doubles back on itself in order to bring the reader into the emotional nexus of the story.” Less typical of the ballad norm, “Barbara Allan” in fact begins when the fifth act is over, “when the tragic actors have left the stage” and only a narrator remains “to give universal and objective meaning to what has happened.” The Tate, in this case, is told in the sparest of ways, making for a tantalizing lack of detail that adds an element of mystery. Few particulars of Barbara and Sir John’s courtship emerge, save that their romance is played out against the end of seasonal cycle—“about the Martinmas time / When the green leaves were a-falling”—a sure sign that their passions are to meet with an untimely end. So abridged is their rather one-sided relationship (for it is the unfortunate Sir John who is besotted), that it occupies barely a single stanza. Nevertheless, the plainness and factuality with which Sir John Graeme’s love for Barbara Allan is stated is characteristic of the earthiness of ballads in general and establishes the sexual motivation for the events that are about to unfold.
If sex and violence, in all of its tabloid-like sensationalism, are the chief mainstays of popular balladry, then a close second is the convention that sees the rich beset by misfortune and, sometimes quite literally, cut down to size. For the ballad folk, this was perhaps the only means to redress the imbalance that left them victims of their social betters. Sir John Graeme is clearly a wealthy landowner of some influence, important enough to have a “man,” most likely a chamberlain, do his bidding. As the action begins, Sir John’s “man” goes “down through the town” to fetch his master’s sweetheart, but the very necessity of his mission underlines the physical as well as the social distance between the two lovers. In English and Scottish Ballads, poet and ballad anthologist Robert Graves speculates that Barbara is no ordinary country lass, but in fact a witch who takes vengeful exception to her aristocratic lover’s decision to end their affair and marry a woman of higher social rank. Despite such supernatural overtones, what the ballad folk really derived from the story was the satisfaction of knowing that though Sir John may well be a fine young lord, his lands and riches cannot save him from the agony of lovesickness and heartbreak he suffers for the sake of a country girl.
Two standard ballad features—the deathbed scene and what Alan Bold, in The Ballad: The Critical Idiom, refers to as the “pining-away motif”—anchor the poem’s central stanzas (3-7). Though Barbara is willingly escorted to her estranged lover’s bedside, she both arrives and departs with an almost pathological slowness (“O hooly, hooly rose she up / ... O slowly, slowly raise she up”) and exhibits body language that not only reveals her unshakable resolve and self-possession, but also lends a strange, dream-like quality to their final encounter. On drawing her ex-lover’s bed curtain aside, she observes with stark unemotionalism, “‘Young man, I think you’re dying.’” Poor bedside manner to say the least, her bluntness explains why some versions go by the title “Barbara Allan’s Cruelty” and why she has sometimes been rechris-tened “Barbarous Ellen” and “Barbary Alone.” In the ensuing dialogue so typical of the ballad form, where dialogue accounts for the bulk of the narrative, Barbara’s pitilessness is shown to have been provoked—“When ye was in the tavern drinking, / ... ye made the healths go round and round, / And slighted Barbara Allan”—and it is for this crime of the heart that she is now exacting revenge.
Though ballads, as a whole, tend to offer observations of what Oates calls the “grotesque inequities between the lot of men and the lot of women,” “the singers had no wish to alter the ways of the world, because they had no grasp of the fairly modern idea that the ways of the world might be altered.” Modern readers might be tempted to see Barbara as a prototypical feminist, asserting her own will against patriarchal authority, or, at the very least, as the victim of a social double standard, maligned for having the audacity to give as good as she gets. The ballad folk, however, would have seen only the monstrous pride that prevented a woman from saving the man who, quite literally, loves her to death. “Bonny” Barbara Allan is thus one of the prime literary incarnations of the femme faTate figure: a bewitcher and enslaver of men, an embodiment of the fearful aspect of female sexual power, and a warning to those who would love unwisely or unwell. As Sir John nears death, Barbara seems blase, unmoved by his exhortations, even a little bored by the proceedings—“And sighing said, she could not stay.” In his final farewell, he instructs his friends to be “kind to Barbara Allan,” a generously forgiving gesture considering that she has sealed his fate by refusing to reciprocate his love on demand and reconcile with him. His ominous remark proves that he knows her all too well and can see through her injured pride, for in anticipating the effect his death will have on her, he is capable of seeing her pitilessness as pitiable.
The pivotal eighth stanza corresponds to the recognition scene in a tragedy, for it is here that Barbara realizes, too late, the consequences of her misdeeds. As the ballad moves precipitously toward its hasty conclusion, through a montage of scenes so typical of the genre, Barbara begins to make her way home from her interview with Sir John only to hear his death knell. Each successive ringing of the “dead-bell,” by means of repetition, captures her obsessive self-awareness, her all-too-powerful sense of guilt encapsulated in “‘Woe to Barbara Allan,’” a phrase that also conveys the disapproval and condemnation of the community at large. As Barbara goes home crying to her mother, her transformation from ruthlessly self-possessed woman to chastened and shame-ridden child seems complete. She takes to her bed not simply to mourn her lost love but to give up her life for him—a final reciprocal gesture in a relationship otherwise horribly out of sync. “Barbara Allan” thus upholds the convention that critic Alan Bold claims is almost “a sine qua non of romantic balladry, that if one lover dies the other must follow suit.”
With the death of the tragic actors, it falls to the narrator to step in and perform a role similar to that of the chorus in classical tragedy, which is, in Oates’s words, “to translate action into perception” in such a way as to “give universal objective meaning to what has happened.” The final vision is one in which human tragedy is put into perspective, outdistanced by what Oates calls “an ironic consciousness of the way the world is.” “Barbara Allan” is no exception to this rule. It ends with a sweetly sentimental rose-and-brier vignette—a motif used to conclude at least half a dozen other ballads by which lovers are forever joined in a “transcendent love-knot” that stands as a monument to their eternal love. Bitterness and sorrow having been laid to rest with the passing of the winter season, the natural order of things of which the lovers are a part is reasserted along with the seasonal renewal. Though the individual may perish, the flourish of the finale seems to suggest that nature endures. The ballad’s essentially tragic view of life, as enacted through the Tate of the doomed lovers, is ultimately subsumed within the restorative vision of the final stanzas. For all of its brevity and concision, “Barbara Allan” sets forth an expansive view of the realities and possibilities of love, or love, as Oates reflects, as “we might wish it to be.”
Source: Carolyn Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Bronson, Bertrand Harris, “About the Most Favorite British Ballads,” in his The Ballad As Song, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969, p. 167.
Cartwright, Christine A., “‘Barbara Allan’: Love and Death in an Anglo-American Narrative Folksong,” in Narrative Folksong, New Directions, edited by Carol L. Edwards and Kathleen E. B. Manley, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985, pp. 242-65.
Greer, Germaine, The Female Eunuch, St. Louis, MO: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1970.
Jenner, Michael, Scotland Through the Ages, London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1987.
Langer, William, ed., An Encyclopedia of World History, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1972.
Pepys, Samuel, The Diary of Samuel Pepys written in 1666, as quoted by Alan Bold in The Ballad, New York: Methueun, 1979, p. 48.
Steel, Tom, Scotland’s Story: A New Perspective, London: William Collins and Sons, 1984.
Kennedy, Peter, ed., Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, New York: Schirmer Books, 1975.
This collection includes music for many of the songs and extensive bibliographies that refer readers to printed and recorded sources.
Lomax, John A., and Alan Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs, New York: The MacMillian Co., 1934.
Continually in print throughout much of the twentieth century, this collection gives American readers a clear look at the connection between history and the folk tradition.
MacColl, Ewan, Folk Songs as Ballads of Scotland, New York: Music Sales Corp., 1997.
This book of ballads, by one of this century’s foremost interpreters of traditional Scottish ballads, provides musical scores in addition to the lyrics to the songs.
Somerset Fry, Plantagenet, and Fiona Somerset Fry, The History of Scotland, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.
The Somerset Frys combine a detailed account of each of Scotland’s historical era with illustrations and plates that make the history clear.