“Lord Randal” is a traditional Scottish ballad. Scholars believe its original source to be an Italian ballad, “L’Avvelenato.” The earliest printing of this Italian version exists in a 1629 advertisement for a performance by a singer in Verona, in which excerpts of the ballad appear. The Scottish version is found in Francis James Child’s famous collection of English and Scottish ballads, which was published in five volumes from 1882 to 1898. Along with the Italian source, Child recognizes versions of the “Lord Randal” story from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Sweden, and Calabria. Like most ballads, it is difficult to date precisely, and it probably existed in oral tradition earlier than the seventeenth-century reference to it.
As are all traditional ballads, “Lord Randal” is a narrative song—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. “Lord Randal” tells of a man who has been poisoned by his lover. It does not give any details about the background incident; in this case, the listener does not know why Lord Randal has been poisoned. The ballad refers to it merely as the event that triggers the action. The action itself consists of Lord Randal’s revelation that he has been poisoned, a statement of his last will and testament, and his final curse on the lover who killed him.
“O where ha’ you been, Lord Randal, my son?
And where ha you been, my handsome young
“I hae been at the greenwood; mother, mak my bed
For I’m wearied wi’ huntin, and fain wad lie
“An wha met ye there, Lord Randal, my son? 5
An wha met you there, my handsome young man?”
“O I met wi’ my true-love; mother, mak my bed
For I’m wearied wi’ huntin, and fain wad lie
“And what did she give you, Lord Randal, my son?
And what did she give you, my handsome young” 10
“Eels fried in a pan; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi’ huntin, and fain wad lie
“And wha gat your leavins, Lord Randal, my son?
And wha gat your leavins, my handsome young
“My hawks and my hounds; mother, mak my bed 15
For I’m wearied wi’ huntin, and fain wad lie
“And what becam of them, Lord Randal, my son?
And what becam of them, my handsome young
“They swelled and they died; mother, mak my bed
For I’m wearied wi’ huntin, and fain wad lie 20
“O I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son!
I fear you are poisoned, my handsome young
“O yes, I am poisoned, mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.”
“What d’ ye leave to your mother, Lord Randal, 25
What d’ ye leave to your mother, my handsome
“Four and twenty milk kye; mother, mak my bed
For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.”
“What d’ ye leave to your sister, Lord Randal, my
What d’ ye to your sister my handsome young 30
“My gold and my silver; mother, mak my bed
For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.”
“What d’ ye leave to your brother, Lord Randal,
What d’ ye to your brother my handsome young
“My houses and my lands; mother, mak my bed 35
For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.”
“What d’ ye leave to your true-love, Lord Randal,
What d’ ye to your true-love my handsome young
“I leave her hell and fire; mother, mak my bed
For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.” 40
The first stanza introduces the main character, the nobleman Lord Randal. The listener also learns that he is “handsome” and “young.” His youth suggests that he is susceptible to danger, because he probably lacks worldly experience that would enable him to sense and thwart treachery. Lord Randal’s mother asks him where he has been, and he answers that he has been hunting in the forest; he says he is tired, and he requests that she ready his bed for him because he would like to lie down. In this first stanza, there is no indication of anything out of the ordinary about Lord Randal’s day, but the fact that he has been in the “greenwood,” or forest, carries with it the connotation of adventure and danger.
As if she suspects that her son has been doing something other than hunting, Lord Randal’s mother asks him who he met in the forest. He answers that he met his “true love” there and repeats his complaint of tiredness and request that his bed be readied for him. The idea of meeting a sweetheart on a hunting trip raises the first suspicion that something out of the ordinary has happened to Lord Randal.
The mother continues her questioning, asking Lord Randal what he received from his sweetheart. He answers that he ate fried eels that she gave him. Once again, Lord Randal concludes his answer with his complaint and request. At this third repetition, it seems more urgent that Lord Randal be given a place to rest.
The mother now asks Lord Randal who got his leftover food. He answers her that he gave it to his hunting birds and hounds. (Trained hounds and hawks were used to chase prey and to retrieve it after it was shot.) Lord Randal again complains of his tiredness and asks for his bed to be made ready. At this point, the listener becomes curious about the mother’s line of questioning and also anxious for Lord Randal.
Lord Randal’s mother asks him what happened to his hawks and his hounds. He tells her that they became bloated and died, and then, once again, he says that he is tired and wants to lie down. The pieces of the story begin to come together—Lord Randal’s pets died with symptoms of poisoning after eating the same food that Lord Randal ate. His statement that the hunting tired him and his request for a bed, now repeated for the fifth time, suggest his own illness.
The mother finally states her suspicion that Lord Randal has been poisoned. He confirms her belief, and the last line changes. Lord Randal no longer claims that he is tired from hunting; he now asserts that he is “sick at heart,” implying that he has been hurt by his “true love.”
In this stanza the nuncupative testament begins. Lord Randal’s mother asks him how he wants his belongings dispensed when he dies. She begins by asking what he will leave to her. He answers that she will receive twenty-four milk cows and repeats his request for his bed to be readied. The listener now knows the bed will be Lord Randal’s deathbed. Lord Randal precedes his request with the new refrain, “For I’m sick at the heart,” throughout the second half of the ballad. The association of the pain of a broken heart and the deathbed establish this ballad as one that speaks of the tragedy of love.
Lord Randal’s mother next asks what he will leave to his sister. The gift to his sister represents possessions of more value than the cows that Lord Randal willed to his mother. His sister will receive Lord Randal’s “gold” and “silver.” Repetition of the refrain causes the reader to pity and feel anxious for Lord Randal, whose complaint sounds more desperate each time he makes it.
When asked what he will leave his brother, Lord Randal names the most valuable of his possessions, his houses and his lands. The increasing value of these bequests creates an excitement for the listener, a sort of priming in anticipation of the final stanza. In keeping with the pattern, this stanza closes with the refrain, and upon hearing it again, the listener should feel deeply moved by Lord Randal’s suffering.
The mother finally asks Lord Randal what he bequeaths to his true love. The listener may expect the greatest gift of all to be named in keeping with the pattern in which Lord Randal names increasingly valuable gifts. However, Lord Randal will not leave his true love anything; he curses her with “hell” and “fire,” revealing at last the extent to which she has hurt him—not only physically, by the poisoning, but also emotionally, due to her lack of love. This last repetition of the refrain establishes the closing of the ballad with a final pitiable cry from the sad, dying lover.
The first part of the conversation between the mother and son that comprises “Lord Randal” gradually reveals how Lord Randal comes to be dying prematurely and relates the emotional reaction of the mother to this situation. At the beginning of each stanza, Lord Randal’s mother prompts him with a question, from which she gets a terse reply. The withholding of complete details in her son’s answers prompts the mother to ask another question. The gradual way in which the mother learns of her son’s condition creates a sense of tension in her words—from the very opening lines, “O where ha’ you been, Lord Randal, my son? And where ha’ you been, my handsome young man?” her sense of panic crescendoes until it reaches an apex in the sixth stanza when she exclaims, “O I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son! I fear you are poisoned, my handsome young man!” The use of exclamation points in this stanza relates to the reader the mother’s sense of dread as she realizes that her son’s death is imminent.
Likewise, Lord Randal’s responses to his mother’s questions reveal his own reaction to his impending death. His responses, however, are largely open to interpretation. One thing is for certain, though: Lord Randal’s statements are much milder than those of his mother. His repetitive, matter-of-fact responses to his mother’s questions are not what one expects from someone who is dying. It can argued, therefore, that Lord Randal is in shock and in denial of the situation, insofar as he states that he is merely “wearied wi’ huntin.” This implies that Lord Randal is dealing with his death by not acknowledging the fact that he is dying. Notice in the sixth stanza how mild his response is to his mother’s exclamations: “O yes, I am poisoned, mother, mak my bed soon, / For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.” It is as if he has just remembered that he was poisoned. He is of sound enough mind to state his last will and testament to his mother, and yet does not have a frenzied reaction to his own demise.
The common folk of the Middle Ages, especially the high Middle Ages, surrounded the death experience in religious ritual in order to find reassurance and comfort in a life after death. According to Frances and Joseph Gies in their work Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, “death was immured in ritual, the laments of daughters and daughters-in-law commencing before the stricken peasant expired and continuing until burial,” and that “to the man or woman on the deathbed … two things were important: to be surrounded by one’s family and, whatever the ritual, to achieve salvation.” The ideal situation for a death in the Middle Ages was for an individual to anticipate his death, having suffered an illness or debilitating wound. In doing so, the person could ensure the two essential requirements were met. In Lord Randal’s case, however, death has caught him unprepared. This certainly increased the already frightening experience of dying. Due to the lack of detail in the ballad, it is hard to ascertain whether or not Lord Randal was surrounded by any family members other than his mother. However, based on the two-sided conversation, it seems fair to surmise that his sister and brother were not present, and the father is never mentioned in the poem. It is also impossible to determine whether or not Lord Randal received the aid of a member of the clergy in his final moments. However, evidence would suggest that he did not participate in any salvation-producing ritual. Therefore, Lord Randal achieved neither of the desired elements of the ideal death experience. His was a worst-case scenario of dying: unprepared and unsaved. This is one of the key reasons why the ballad “Lord Randal” has remained in existence for so many centuries: it is unnerving, causing one to consider the possibilities of an extremely fearful death experience.
- A record titled Edward Jabes Sings Songs of Old France and Old England was released c. 1970 by Luminar Records in Berkeley, California.
- A record titled Lord Randal: An Old Ballad of which there are Several Versions was released c. 1926 by Galaxy Records of London.
- The recording of a version of “Lord Randal” is available online at http://www.deltablues.com/midi/LORDRAND.mid.
Guilt and Innocence
While the themes of guilt and innocence in “Lord Randal” are not as readily apparent as the theme of death, they do exist outside the text of the ballad. These ideas are conjured in the reader’s mind after the ballad has been read. The obvious perpetrator of the crime is the lover; she poisoned Lord Randal and is therefore guilty. The converse theme, coupled with the emotion surrounding his death, leads the reader to view Lord Randal as the victim and, therefore, as innocent. After the initial shock of the story fades, the reader begins to question the events leading to the action depicted in the ballad. However, because no detail is provided by the author, the reader is left to wonder: Why did she poison him? Did they quarrel? Was he unfaithful? The distinction between guilt and innocence begins to fade. If Lord Randal was unfaithful, or if they did argue, then he is not completely innocent; and, some may argue, if she had some cause to poison him, she would not be completely guilty. In crimes of passion, it is often difficult to adequately place blame. The author uses the themes of guilt and innocence in such a way as to create an unanswerable riddle that has persisted through the ages.
Although most ballads use some dialogue as a technique in telling the story, “Lord Randal” differs in that it uses nothing else. The listener learns of the
Topics for Further Study
- Why did Lord Randal leave his possessions to his family in the manner he did? Does each possession match the family member to whom he left it? If yes, how does each item benefit the recipient?
- Examine the author’s use of the phrase “sick at heart.” What are the possible meanings of this phrase? Why do you think the author chose to use this particular phrase?
- Why do you think Lord Randal changed the description of his symptoms from “wearied wi’ huntin’” to “sick at heart” only after his mother voices her fear that he has been poisoned?
- Given what you know about people who lived in medieval times, what is the significance of the word “greenwood” in stanza one? What impact does this word have on the tone of the ballad?
incident that will result in Lord Randal’s death only through the conversation between Lord Randal and his mother. Since the ballad derives from oral, rather than written, verse, the structure of the poem relies on repetition to make it easy to memorize. Repetition of the words “Lord Randal, my son” and “my handsome young man” and the parallel formation of the first two lines of each stanza along with the repetition of the last line to form a refrain from stanza to stanza all serve this mnemonic purpose. This repetition also lends tension to the unraveling story; as Lord Randal asks repeatedly for a resting place, a sense of urgency develops. In the sixth stanza, the closing refrain changes from “wearied wi’ hunting” to “sick at the heart,” so that the listener now fully understands Lord Randal’s predicament. At this point in the ballad, Lord Randal and his mother settle his estate. Again, repetition ties the ballad together and intensifies the drama. Each question follows the pattern, “What d’ ye leave,” and each answer varies. In each stanza Lord Randal bequeaths more valuable possessions than in the previous stanza. In the last stanza this question-and-answer pattern allows Lord Randal to make a final judgment on his lover, leaving her a curse instead of any possessions. The device of listing the possessions and then culminating in a curse for the murderer appears as a structural technique in other ballads as well; this technique is called a nuncupative testament.
The first printed version of “Lord Randal” appeared in 1629, but the ballad had existed in Scotland long before—at least since the 1500s, a time of great turmoil in that country. Scotland’s rivaling neighbors, England and France each vied for a degree of sovereignty over Scotland and each sought to establish Scotland as an ally with whom, as nations, they would hold common religious precepts— France remained a predominantly Catholic nation, while England, under the rule of Henry VIII, was converting to Protestantism. The royal families of the three nations during this century often negotiated peace by arranging marriages among themselves; a marriage between the prince of one nation and the princess of another was an act of diplomacy. Thus, several monarchs during this century were the rulers of two nations at the same time. One such monarch was Mary Stuart, who was, during a short period, both Queen of Scotland and Queen of France.
Mary was the daughter of Mary of Guise, a French noblewoman, and James V, who was king of Scotland from 1513 to 1542. James V died of illness shortly after a battle in which Scottish forces were defeated following an English invasion; Henry VIII had dispatched forces to Scotland after James refused Henry’s expectation that James would take actions to suppress the powerful Catholic Church of Scotland. James V died, leaving his six-day-old daughter to become Queen of Scotland and his wife, Mary of Guise, to act as regent.
Just a year after Mary Stuart’s birth, the Treaty of Greenwich was signed, which stipulated that the child-queen was to marry England’s Prince Edward, the child of Henry VIII, and would be sent to live in England when she turned ten years old. When Scotland’s leaders realized that England planned to instill control over the nation, however, Scotland’s government broke the treaty and canceled the marriage. Invasions planned by Henry ensued, and Scotland enlisted the help of France, who
Compare & Contrast
- 1620: The oral tradition is largely responsible for the transmission of stories and events throughout Europe.
1990: Satellite television and the internet provide the world with up-to-the-minute news reports on current events.
- 1600s: Europe was wracked by religious intolerance, and members of groups whose beliefs differed from official religions were often persecuted for their beliefs. The Protestant Huguenots were forced to leave Catholic France, Protestant sects such as the Puritans and Quakers, as well as Roman Catholics, were driven underground or forced to leave England. In Italy the Waldensian (Vaudois) sect was driven into the Alps and eventually murdered.
1990s: Religious persecution is often as bloody today as it was three hundred years ago. Christian Serbs have waged a war of extermination against Bosnian Muslims for most of the 1990s. The conflict between Hindus and Sikhs in India erupts regularly into violence. And although a settlement has been sought for nearly twenty years, the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis usually take the form of violent demonstrations, police beatings, and military action.
- 1620: Ballads serve as entertainment for the common people.
1990: Urban legends are shared around campfires as entertainment.
would send troops to fight off the English invaders. The nations’ leaders decided that Mary would marry the French Dauphin, or the first son of the king, Francis.
As a five-year-old, Mary was sent to France to live among the young Francis’s relatives and, over the next ten years, she received a solid classical education. In April of 1558, she married Francis in a grand Catholic ceremony in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. While she had a relatively uneventful childhood, the few years following her wedding were turbulent ones. Just a few months after the ceremony, Henry II, Francis’s father, died after a jousting accident, and Francis and Mary ascended as France’s ruling monarchs. Only sixteen years old, Mary was the queen of both Scotland of France. Her reign as the queen of two nations, however, was brief; Francis died of complications from an ear infection in late 1560, only several months after Mary’s mother died. A few months after Francis died and his brother Charles IX claimed the throne, Mary returned to Scotland to take a more active role in her homeland’s affairs.
When Mary arrived in the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh, the effects of the Reformation were prevalent in Scotland. Protestant reformers held positions of power in the Scottish government, to the extent that while Mary had Mass conducted in her own palace chapel, she publicly declared that she would not take any actions to interfere with the now widespread practice of Protestantism in Scotland. Actions such as these, along with her gracious and warm personality, made Mary a popular and admired Queen, even though she was devoutly Catholic at a time when Catholicism was persecuted and Scotland allied itself with England rather than France.
However, Mary’s golden years as reigning queen were few. In 1565 she became enamored with and married her Catholic first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, to the dismay of many Scottish leaders. Mary had already expressed her desire to claim the English throne, upon which was Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Anne Boleyn. Mary was the next heir to the English throne, while her new husband was heir to it after Mary. Scottish and English leaders feared the union of two powerful Catholic heirs on the Scottish throne. Though their fears were not unfounded—as would be evidenced by Mary’s actions in the succeeding few years—the royal couple would gain notoriety for matters altogether different.
Although Mary had political motives for marrying Darnley, she also had been enchanted with him. This, however, soon changed, as Darnley, who was three years younger than Mary, revealed to Mary unsavory aspects of his personality. Mary had been taking the companionship and the counseling of David Rizzio, a musician, who became the Scottish secretary of French affairs. Their relationship aroused the suspicion of other Scottish nobles, including Darnley. In 1566 Darnley and a group of other nobles broke into the Queen’s chambers and stabbed Rizzio to death in front of Mary. Because Mary was pregnant at the time, she hid her hatred of her husband and rejected divorce since it would likely cause her child to lose claim as the Scottish sovereign.
Mary, however, saw her child claim the throne much sooner than was to be expected. Around the time her son James was born, Mary began a romantic relationship with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. The Queen, Bothwell, and other nobles who were enemies of Darnley met in secret and conspired against him. On February 10, 1567, Mary had convinced her husband that they would stay in Kirk o’Field, a lodge outside of Edinburgh. Mary made an excuse to leave him that evening, and hours later the building where Darnley sojourned exploded. Darnley was found strangled outside. Bothwell’s stood trial but was acquitted. However, when Bothwell, after a quick divorce from his wife, and Mary got married, Mary’s remaining loyal followers rebelled against her. In July of 1567, Mary was coerced into abdicating sovereignty to her infant son, who became King James VI.
After being dethroned, Mary was imprisoned at Lochleven castle. In May of 1568 she escaped and, later that month, she left Scotland for the last time to seek refuge in England. Elizabeth I welcomed her cousin, but because Mary had previously expressed her desire to be Queen of England and because she had the support of many English Catholics, she was not trusted. Mary spent the rest of her nineteen years in England under supervision. The English government’s qualms proved well-founded. Mary repeatedly conspired to take the throne from Elizabeth. After already being investigated twice during her residence in England, another trial was held in 1587 in which Mary was implicated in an assassination plot against Elizabeth. Found guilty of high treason, Mary was sentenced to death, and Elizabeth reluctantly signed her death warrant. On February 8, 1587, Mary was beheaded in Fotheringhay Castle. She was eventually buried in Westminister, and her son, James VI, claimed what Mary could not—the thrones of both England and Scotland.
In his collection of essays The Ballad as Song, Bertrand Harris Bronson lists “Lord Randal” as one of the seven most popular ballads in the world. As he puts it, the popularity of this ballad and many others stems from its presentation of “love as a disease from which no one recovers.” Louise Pound discusses the transformation of “Lord Randal” into several American ballads. She points out that it has been sung in all regions of the country, going through transitions that fit it to the culture in which it reappears. For example, in the nineteenth century it was sung in Colorado as a railway camp song about the tragic poisoning of “Johnny Randal” by his sweetheart. Though it has been popular for centuries, the listener never knows why Lord Randal’s “true love” poisons him. In explanation, MacEd-ward Leach discusses “the tendency in the ballad to pass quickly over the first half of the plot—the unstable situation—to come to the second—the solution.” He feels that listeners traditionally accept this lack of background information because they are “the folk [who] are not concerned with why, for they are not introspective or analytical. Rather they are concerned with the drama of the moment and the character’s reaction to it.” Leach reminds the reader that ballads belong to common folk who have kept them alive through the centuries, and these people enjoy the dramatic tension of an immediate encounter, such as this one between Lord Randal and his mother at their last meeting before his death.
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 gives a general overview of the ballad form and a specific analysis of “Lord Randal.”
By turns scandalous and heart-wrenching, the popular folk ballad known as “Lord Randal” rivals any of today’s tabloid tales in its swift and urgent encapsulation of youthful passion, maternal jealousy, bitter rejection, murderous betrayal, and scornful reproach. Though it speaks to us today because of what it shares with the familiar mainstays of the popular press and also because of its timeless themes of love and death, its origins can be traced back as far as the fourteenth century, with its clearest antecedent coming from seven-teenth–century Italy, where the song “L’Avvele-nato” (“The Poisoned Man”) popularized the story of a young man murdered by his mistress, according to Alfred B. Friedman in his The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World. Later, this narrative poem, by way of translation, made its way to England and Scotland. From there, the poem’s perennial appeal spawned countless variants worldwide, even as far afield as Europe and Canada, with the young huntsman of the title going under an array of aliases—from Duranty and Durango in Oklahoma to Johnny Randolph in Virginia and McDonald in South Carolina. What is common to most versions is the standard ballad motif of the nuncupative testament (or spoken will) voiced by the murder victim himself who, as he dies, vows undying hatred and bequeaths not wealth but eternal damnation to the true love who ultimately proves so false. Helping to sustain the ballad narrative in a memorable way is the dialogue between mother and son that serves as its vehicle as well as the insistent strains of incremental repetition that add to its sense of immediacy and intensity. These qualities, combined with its subtle shifts in mood, help to make “Lord Randal” distinct within balladry and explain why scholar Bertrand Bronson lists it as third in his “top seven” Child ballads—poems collected by Francis J. Child in his landmark compilation, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.
“Vivid, impersonal, dramatic and rhythmically simple,” “Lord Randal” fits critic Ian Bold’s definition of a genuine ballad. For centuries, even as far back as the Middle Ages, folk ballads existed not as written texts but as performances—songs to be sung, committed to memory and given new life with each retelling over the span of generations. Only in the past two centuries, when they became the objects of antiquarian curiosity, have ballads been collected and printed. They survive as living artifacts of illiterate and preliterate cultures, having been not so much transmitted as transmuted by the enriching variations that occur over time. Their style incorporates necessary aids to memory, such as rhyme and refrain, while their substance reflects the tragic and stoical conception of life held by the unlettered peoples responsible for their creation. Not surprisingly, their tunes are most often in minor keys.
Women are now believed to have been the prime custodians of the popular ballad tradition, handing down the “vulgar” old-wives’ tales through the distaff side, yet as anonymous compositions, the origins of these poems remain a mystery, according to K. K. Ruthven, in an article in Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Among scholars, speculation continues as to whether they are the creations of individual entertainers—minstrels, for example—or the collective efforts of entire communities. Whatever the case, the ballad-poet keeps himself out of the poem, and on the rare occasions the personal pronoun “I” intrudes, it expresses a communal rather than subjective view-point—one that is not prone to moralizing or analyzing the characters’ motives. Visceral, simple, and decidedly unsubtle, ballads speak to the heart rather than to the head. Whether they concern domestic crimes (such as adultery, battery, or abandonment), supernatural encounters, or the exploits of revered heroes or outlaws, all attention is focused on a single explosive situation—often a single, dramatic scene—for which there is little preparation and a minimum of amplifying detail. Ballads have a tendency of plunging almost immediately into the middle of the action, so that the climactic event or catastrophe becomes the point from which the episode unfolds. With the utmost brevity and intensity, events are shown as they happen, rather than simply being reported, aided in large part by liberal exchanges of dialogue that imply more than they ever assert. Since stock figures, accepted conventions, and formulaic phrases (such as “lily-white”) predominate, there is little need for lengthy description. The momentum that drives the ballad toward its hasty and unhappy conclusion comes, in large part, from the insistent rhythms and predictable rhymes of its characteristic stanza types. The most common of these stanzas features alternating lines of four and three stresses each that acquire unity through the rhyming of the second and fourth lines. Ballads tell their stories with a few bold strokes that retain their essential character through countless variations.
The story of Lord Randal’s untimely demise emerges through a limited sequence of events: his hunting expedition to the “wild wood”; his rendezvous with his true love; the dinner of poisoned
What Do I Read Next?
- Considered the most famous play in the English language, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was written between 1598 and 1602 and also involves death by poison.
- “Edward,” an anonymous, medieval ballad, is very similar to “Lord Randal,” with some stanzas almost matching word for word. However, there are enough differences to justify a study of the contrasting elements of the two ballads. Like “Lord Randal,” “Edward” has one or two unsolved riddles nestled in the text.
- Randall Wallace’s novel Braveheart (1995) takes place in the fourteenth century, a time England tightened its hold on Scotland and stripped Scottish lords of many privileges. Commoner William Wallace unites the Scots in a battle against England’s King Edward II.
eels she prepares for him; his recounting of his predicament to his mother; his portioning out of his worldly goods; and his deathbed condemnation of his fickle former lover. Yet the ambiguity that surrounds these events and the lack of clear motives for them make the pathos of Lord Randal’s situation more profound. Only gradually is the reader, like the young man’s mother, made aware of the fact that weighs heavily on Lord Randal’s mind from the moment he arrives home complaining of his weariness—that he is dying, not simply from his poisonous dinner but from the equally incurable heartache stemming from betrayal. The delay in breaking this news deepens its emotional impact and heightens the contrast between the poem’s initial cheerfulness, reinforced through the buoyancy of its interspersed triple meters, and the bitter anguish that consumes the young nobleman by the end of the poem.
Not only does dialogue “bulk large” here, as Alfred B. Friedman observed of balladry in general in his introduction to The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World, but the entire poem is cast in the form of a single dialogue in which the mother poses the questions and her stricken son dutifully answers them. The mother’s line of enquiry may be simply polite or rhetorical (an expression of her concern for her son), but it may well be more akin to a cross-examination—an expression of her possessiveness, over-protectiveness and jealousy at being relegated to second place in her son’s affections. In the first four stanzas, as her identically phrased questions meet with his identically phrased replies, she is able to determine where he has been, whom has he been with, what he has eaten, and what has become of the hunting hounds that consumed his leftovers. At the poem’s pivotal middle stanza, she briefly switches to the declarative mood to voice the suspicion “I fear ye are poisoned,” a fact her son duly corroborates. But as ballad critic E. Flatto points out in an article in Southern Folklore Quarterly, “her solicitous inquiries” prove “unnecessary and superfluous; he has long known what she discloses as a supposedly novel revelation.” In the brutal and comfortless world of “Lord Randal,” even traditional authority figures, such as mothers, are incapable of responding to suffering with compassion or wise words of advice. What the dialogue counterpoints are two distinct outlooks on life: one based on materialism and an appreciation for nothing more than cold, hard fact; the other founded on an emotional reality where to be “sick at heart” from betrayal is a fate worse than death itself. The symmetry of the catechismal exchanges between the mother and her dying son in the first four and final four stanzas gives added emphasis to the central stanza that not only breaks the pattern but sounds the death knell of the title character. “Lord Randal,” in this way, gives structural prominence to a sense of inevitability and foreboding—the stark fatalism for which ballads the world over are well known.
The iteration present in the mother’s incessant demands for answers and her son’s equally insistent demands for a bed that turns out to be a deathbed creates an ever-increasing and, by the end, almost unbearable sense of urgency and suspense. This technique, known as incremental repetition, is the poem’s sole structuring principle— one that assists memory but also makes “Lord Randal” memorable within the general context of ballad literature. Incremental repetition involves minor substitutions or revision to repeated lines and phrases. It is by establishing, then altering the pattern that the story is advanced and monotony is broken. In “Lord Randal” only the first halves of the first and third lines alter stanza by stanza, so that the rest of the poem serves as a still point against which the narrative unfolds, the repeated lines carrying what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the weight of emotion that “cannot be discharged in one saying.” The minor successive changes to the last line of each stanza are vital in showing the deepening of Lord Randal’s tragic self-awareness, as his self-described weariness—the natural consequence of a day’s exertions—changes to metaphysical complaint, “For I’m sick at heart and fain would lie down.” The meaning of the latter expands every time it is heard. Moreover, the refrain’s regular recurrence, like the ticking of a clock, measures out the passage of time and serves as a reminder of what little time Lord Randal has left, according to Alfred Corn in The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody.
There is nothing, at the beginning, that would help to account for the evil that befalls the title character or indicate the sinister nature of the world into which he unwittingly ventures. In keeping with the epithets and character types that abound in ballad literature, everything about Lord Randal is youthful, hopeful, and innocent. He is “handsome” and adventurous—a man of action in quest of love. His undoing is to stray from the security of his home into the “wild wood,” a place long associated with primal fears and the unconscious, a place of danger in the realm of fairy tale and folk belief. According to some versions of the poem, Lord Randal’s encounter with his true love takes place in the “greenwood,” traditionally the scene of “mad-merry marriages” or secret assignations unsanctioned by the church that capped off May Day festivities. Despite the amorous associations of their meeting place, the exact nature of Lord Randal’s relationship with his true love remains as shadowy, enigmatic, and mysterious as the woman herself. Her crime, a crime of passion rather than a culinary mishap, is all the more reprehensible and horrifying because, as E. Flatto observes, the lethal meal “masks its aggressive intent behind the traditional trappings of love.” At the hands of a fatal female, Lord Randal becomes the unsuspecting victim of his own besotted trust, and nothing epitomizes that trust more than the image of the young huntsman feeding the fatal morsels to his hawks and his hounds. Neither the irony of the epithet “true-love” nor the imminence of his own death, foretold in the death of his dogs, is lost on him. When he returns home, reeling from rejection as much as from the effects of poison, it is with the knowledge that his former faith and optimism had been entirely misplaced and out of keeping with the rest of the world. He is not merely tired from physical exertion,
“Visceral, simple, and decidedly unsubtle, ballads speak to the heart rather than to the head.”
but tired of the world where such wickedness is possible. Restating the obvious, his confirmation of his affliction comes with characteristic ballad understatement—“O yes, I am poisoned, mother”—but that very understatement reinforces the tragic conception of life on which ballad literature is founded.
The final half of the poem is sustained by a ballad motif known as the nuncupative testament. Lord Randal is asked to designate the heirs to his belongings. He leaves his livestock to his mother, his cache of precious metal to his sister, and his property to his brother. With a parting irony, he reserves only contempt and vitriolic condemnation—“hell and fire”—for his homicidal paramour, leaving her what Alan Bold, in The Ballad: The Critical Idiom, calls “a curse rather than a commodity.” It would seem that Lord Randal’s final response is a forgone conclusion, but for his mother, whose curiosity is not only insatiable but cruel, her son’s utter disenchantment is perverse proof that her rival for his affections has been unseated once and for all.
The incantational, almost obsessive quality of “Lord Randal,” combined with the poignancy of a hero who must explain the circumstances of his death and see to the settlement of his estate, lifts the ballad to the level of classical tragedy. Lord Randal is a victim of fate just as he is a helpless witness to its slow, inevitable workings. In its melancholy and despair, “Lord Randal” conveys what the ballad folk knew all too well—that life is short and happiness is fleeting. In its brief span, it manages to contrast themes as expansive as “innocence and experience, trust and betrayal, love and rejection,” according to Flatto. There are few happy endings in the realm of balladry, and “Lord Randal,” in its hard-edged narrative of love gone wrong, of shattered illusions, and life cut short, is clearly no exception.
Source: Carolyn Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
John E. Housman
In the following excerpt, Housman provides general information about traditional British ballads and comments on the existence of multiple versions of the Lord Randal story.
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Source: John E. Housman, introduction to British Popular Ballads, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1969, pp. 13-40.
Bird, S. Elizabeth, “‘Lord Randal’ in Kent: The Meaning and Context of a Ballad Variant,” Folklore, Vol. 96, No. 2, 1985, p. 248.
Bold, Alan, The Ballad: The Critical Idiom, London: Methuen, 1979, p. 27.
Bronson, Bertrand Harris, “About the Most Favorite British Ballads,” in The Ballad As Song, University of California Press, 1969.
Child, Francis J., The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols., Boston, 1882-1898, reprinted by Cooper Square, 1965.
Corn, Alfred, The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody, Brownsville, OR: Story Line Press, 1997, p. 104.
Flatto, E., “Lord Randal,” Southern Folklore Quarterly, Vol. 34, 1970, p. 332.
Friedman, Alfred B., The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World, New York: Viking Press, 1966, pp. xix, xxi, 178.
Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987, pp. 13-14, 185.
Graves, Robert, The White Goddess, London: Faber, 1961, p. 398.
Leach, MacEdward, The Ballad Book, Harper, 1955.
MacDiarmid, Hugh, ed., The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry, Miami: Granger Books, 1940, pp. 110-112.
Mackie, R. L., A Short History of Scotland, edited by Gordon Donaldson, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1962, pp. 100-47.
“Mary, Queen of Scotland,” DISCovering World History, Gale, 1998.
Pound, Louise, Poetic Origins and the Ballad, Russell and Russell, 1962.
Power, Eileen, Medieval People, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1963, pp. 158-162.
Ruthven, K. K., “Feminist Literary Studies,” Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader, edited by Mary Eagleton, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986, p. 93.
Shakespeare, William, “Othello,” in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, New York: Dorset Press, 1988, pp. 818-57.
Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987.
Frances and Joseph Gies provide an overview of the life of the family unit throughout the rise and decline of medieval Europe. This work discusses the lifestyles and struggles of the family within each social class, taking into account such events as the Black Death. This is a very insightful work that gives the reader a true sense of life during the Middle Ages.
Leach, MacEdward, ed., The Ballad Book, New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, Inc., 1955.
In this anthology of American, Scottish, English, and Danish ballads, Leach presents as many variant forms of each poem as possible to promote comparative analysis. This work is full of historical information about each ballad.
MacDiarmid, Hugh, ed., The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry, Miami: Granger Books, 1940.
This is a comprehensive anthology of Scottish poetry from the early Middle Ages to the 1900s. It is an excellent text for any student who wishes to become more familiar with reading and understanding the Scottish language.
Power, Eileen, Medieval People, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1963.
This work provides one of the most insightful glimpses into the Middle Ages available. Focusing on six individuals from the Middle Ages, Power delves into the personal histories of actual people from different social classes in medieval Europe. This work provides answers to the questions regarding everyday life in the Middle Ages.