Sir Patrick Spens

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Sir Patrick Spens

Anonymous 1765

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

“Sir Patrick Spens” is a traditional ballad, which means 1) that it was originally written to be sung, 2) that it is anonymous because the names of the original author or authors have been lost to us over time, and 3) that the ballad often exists in several versions. Ballads tell mostly tragic stories, and “Sir Patrick Spens” explores two primary themes. One is mortality: people are born and must die. This is related to the second theme, the role of fate or accident in peoples’ lives.

Ballads may or may not have some basis in fact. According to Francis James Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads, other versions of “Sir Patrick Spens” suggest it may be combining three historical events. In 1281, Scottish King Alexander III’s daughter Margaret was married to Norway’s King Eric, but on her voyage home, the ship sank and all perished. Eric and Margaret were survived by a daughter, also named Margaret. She was to be married to a son of England’s King Edward I, but died while sailing from Norway. There is no historical link between Sir Patrick Spens and these events, though chronicles indicate that there was a Spens and that he may have been a Captain, not a Lord. Finally, there was a famous shipwreck off the coast of Aberdour near Papa Stronsay Island, which claims to be the burial place of Sir Patrick Spens. Though it is unlikely the events in this poem are true in the historical sense, we can see that they may refer to these actual events. More importantly for us, these events help explain a bit about why the king ordered Spens to sail at such a dangerous time of year.

Although ballads such as “Sir Patrick Spens” are traditional and anonymous, many poets copy the traditional ballad form. You might want to compare “Sir Patrick Spens” with such ballads as William Blake’s “The Tyger,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” John Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.”

Poem Text

The king sits in Dumferling toune,
   Drinking the blude-reid wine:
O quhar will I get guid sailor,
   To sail this schip of mine?
Up and spak an eldern knicht,                  5
   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;                10
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
   Was walking on the sand.
The first line that Sir Patrick red,
   A loud lauch lauchèd he:
The next line that Sir Patrick red,           15
   The teir blinded his ee.
O quhar is this has don this deid,
   This ill deid don to me;
To send me out this time o’ the yeir,
   To sail upon the sea?                      20
Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
   Our good schip sails the morn.
O say na sae, my master deir,
   For I feir a deadlie storme.
Late late yestreen I saw the new moone        25
   Wi’ the auld moone in hir arme;
And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
   That we will come to harme.
O our Scots nobles wer richt laith
   To weet their cork-heild schoone;          30
But lang owre a’ the play were played,
   Their hats they swam aboone.
O lang, lang may the ladies stand
   Wi’ their fans into their hand,
Or e’er they see Sir Patrick Spens            35
   Come sailing to the land.
O lang, lang, may the ladies stand
   Wi’ their gold kerns in their hair,
Waiting for their ain deir lords,
   For they’ll see them na mair.              40
Have owre, have owre to Aberdour,
   It’s fifty fadom deip:
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spens,
   Wi’ the Scots lords at his feit.

Poem Summary

Line 1

The ballad begins by introducing the main characters. Here, we meet the king, who is in Dumferling, Scotland. The king “sits,” in that he “reigns” and his throne is a “seat” of his power. He also “sits” in the sense of being stationary. He does not move, though his actions will make others move.

Line 2

The wine that the king drinks is “blood red,” suggesting his power over life and death, as well as the ease with which he controls other people’s lives. He sends men to their deaths as casually as one might drink a glass of wine.

Lines 3-4

“Oh where will I get a good sailor, to sail this ship of mine?” the king asks. Soon, the king will choose Sir Patrick Spens. Although being selected by the king is an honor, it also means that Spens must undertake an impossible journey. As a sailor, Spens is a “good,” skillful sailor and because he is brave, he is a good man as well; but this cannot save him from his fate. No matter how skillful a sailor he is, no human can withstand the fury of nature. And no matter how loyal and true he is, like all people, Spens must die.

Lines 5-6

An “elder” knight speaks up. The fact that the knight is an elder suggests that he is respected, a senior advisor to the king. The knight also has power in court because he sits at the king’s side i.e., at his right knee. As we will see, because the knight speaks “up,” Spens and his ship are sent down “fifty fadom deip.”

Lines 7-8

The elder knight praises Sir Patrick Spens as the world’s best sailor. Notice the sibilance in lines 7 and 8; the repetition of “s” sounds imitates the sound of waves crashing on the shore.

Lines 9-10

The king writes a broad letter of command, ordering Spens to sail the royal ship. It is signed with the king’s hand, the royal signature, and must be obeyed.

Lines 11-12

The letter is sent to Spens as he walks along the beach. Notice that the word “who” seems to be

Media Adaptations

  • Fairport Convention performed a version of “Sir Patrick Spens” on their 1970 album Full House, available from Rykodisc.
  • Geoff Kaufman produced Fair Stood the Wind, available in cassette from Folk-Legacy Records.

omitted from line 12; it is not stated, but implied (The line might read “who was walking on the sand”). This kind of omission is called an ellipsis. Just as the “who” is absent from the line, so Spens will be absent from the earth when the letter sends him to his death.

Lines 13-14

Spens reads the first line of the letter and laughs. Perhaps it praises his skill as a sailor, or perhaps it identifies his assignment, the impossible journey, and Spens laughs because he thinks it is a joke. In a sense, it is a joke, played on him not by the king or the knight, but by fate.

Lines 15-16

Spens reads further and realizes that the king is serious about sending him on a dangerous voyage. His fate is sealed, but his tear-blinded eye is ironic. Irony is wit or mockery that usually means the opposite of what is said. Destiny or fate are traditionally represented as “blind”—think of Oedipus, Homer, and Milton, whose blindness is seen as a sign that they “see” a higher truth. Like them, Spens can “see” his fate, his inevitable death after the impossible voyage, though tears “blind” him.

Lines 17-18

Spens asks who has done this ill deed to him and the reader begins to suspect the motives of the elder knight. Does he have some secret motive for sending Spens to certain death? We are not told, but wonder about the court, where things are not always what they seem, where illusion can be confused with reality. But the courtly world’s deception does not allow it to escape from life’s only certainty: death. Consider the inversion from “done … deed” to “deed done” in lines 17 and 18. Just as Spens’s reaction while reading the letter went from laughter to tears, so the poem’s word order changes to show how his world has been turned upside down.

Lines 19-20

Spens knows that the weather at this time of year is treacherous.

Lines 21-22

Although the assignment is dangerous, the men must hurry. They follow Spens’s orders as he follows the king’s. Notice how the repetition of “m” and “s” in lines 21 and 22 emphasize the irony. While the men make “haste,” they are anything but “merry.” The sailors know they are sailing off to die, and while the ship may be “good,” no ship can withstand the violence of natural elements.

Lines 23-28

In lines 23 through 28, a sailor speaks up, hoping his master will say it is not so, that they are not really going to sail. The sailor is apprehensive because he has seen the new moon in the old moon’s arms, that is, the dark shape of the new moon and only the hint of a crescent of the old moon. This is an evil omen that predicts bad weather, and the sailor fears, correctly, the ship and crew will come to harm. This is the poem’s most famous image and is used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In lines 27 and 28, note the repetition of “ei,” “e,” and “r” sounds, which call to mind the ocean’s waves moving up and down, tossing a ship at sea.

Lines 29-30

The ship has now sailed, but the nobles are “loath” to “wet” their shoes. This is ironic, because soon not only their shoes, but their entire bodies will be wet, and they will be drowned. The reader compares the nobles, who fear wetting their shoes, with Spens, who knows they are all doomed to drown in the storm. The nobles’ concerns are petty in comparison with Spens, who is a brave soldier fatalistically following orders. Though they are noble because of their family titles, Spens is noble because of his actions.

Lines 31-32

The shipwreck is a “play,” like a trick of fate or an event in the sense of a sports figure who makes a play. Play also suggests a child’s game, for the sailors are like toys in the hands of nature. The fact that we see the nobles’ hats and not the nobles themselves is synecdoche, the substitution of the part for the whole. The hats themselves can be seen as a sign of worldly vanity, and it is ironic that the hats swim, but the nobles themselves cannot; they drown.

Lines 33-36

The ladies stand waiting for Spens and their men to return. They stand, while the king sits, and by the poem’s end, the men lay. Their fans are a sign of vanity, but fans are also used to control the weather by making one more comfortable when it is too hot. At sea, however, the weather cannot be controlled, and the storm kills their men. Recall that the king signs the letter with his hand, which leads to the deaths of Spens and the nobles, that the ladies wait with fans in their hands for men who will never return. This repetition of “hand” links cause and effect, the king, who caused the men to go to sea, and the effect, the men’s demise and their women’s sorrowful waiting.

Lines 37-38

Again, gold is a gold traditional symbol of worldliness, and while the gold combs will remain shiny, the women’s hair will turn grey with time. Their attention to gold is misplaced, for like their men, they too will pass away.

Line 39

The women wait for their “own dear lords,” but their men belong no longer to them but to death.

Line 40

The women will never see their men again, though ironically, the reader sees them lying on the ocean floor. The women hope to see their men alive, but the reader sees the men’s dead bodies.

Lines 41-44

Half the way over to Aberdour, the ship is wrecked in the storm. Now the “good” Spens, like the good ship, is fifty fathoms beneath the sea. The poem’s ending is ironic when we consider the ways the positions of the body have indicated social status (for example, remember the knight who sat at the king’s right knee). At the end, while the lords may outrank Spens socially (note that some versions of the poem have Spens not a “Sir,” but merely a Captain), their cowardice and concern for worldly things—their failure to comprehend their situation and act accordingly—sets Spens above the lords in the end. Significantly, they lie at his feet, not he at theirs.


Power and Authority

In the eighteenth century, when “Sir Patrick Spens” was written, European society was still rigidly hierarchical. Power was concentrated at the top. This structure is reflected in “Sir Patrick Spens.” Most obvious is the power of the king, who holds the power of life and death, first symbolized in the “blude-reid wine” he drinks on his throne. It is more than symbolic, because he does send Sir Patrick and his men to their deaths “fifty fathom deep.”

The king exercises his power with startling ease. To issue the command that will have terrible import for Sir Patrick and his crew, he has only to write “braid letter” and “sign it with his hand.” And he does this without a single consideration of the consequences for the men and their ship. Although the command saddens Sir Patrick, he never questions the right of the king to send him on such a deadly mission.

Others beside the king also exercise power. The “eldern knicht” occupies a position of power. He “sat at the king’s richt knee” which makes him the second most powerful man at court. More significantly though, he has the king’s ear. When he recommends Sir Patrick as a good sailor, the king listens. This senior knight may even be the real power in the poem, for when Sir Patrick receives the letter sending him out to sea in winter he suspects almost immediately that someone has “an ill deed don” to him. He believes some force is plotting against him on purpose, probably to kill him.

Sir Patrick’s authority over his men is impressive. His power seems to issue more from his moral force and personality rather than from his place in the social hierarchy. The king must sign a formal order to send the men to sea; Spens merely calls his “mirry men” to prepare to sail and they follow their “dear master” despite unfavorable omens and deep misgivings. Sir Patrick’s authority is emphasized in the final lines, where in death at the bottom of the sea, the Scottish nobles occupy a position of subservience at the feet of Sir Patrick.

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a letter from Sir Patrick Spens to the king, explaining that he will not sail as requested and giving valid reasons for this decision.
  • Do you believe that Sir Patrick Spens was brave or foolish? Explain what you would do in his situation, using lines from the poem to support your position.


As in many ballads, death is a dominant force in “Sir Patrick Spens.” It is a force that no human can escape. Death is personified in the figure of the king drinking blood on his throne. He is far away from Sir Patrick and his men, “in Dumferling toune,” and until his letter comes they can live as if he does not exist. But when death calls in the form of the king’s order, it is a command that they cannot defy.

First, Sir Patrick refuses to believe the fateful notice he is given. Then “the teir blinded his ee,” and he is overcome by sorrow. He becomes angry, crying out, with a touch of paranoia, that someone must be out to get him, “to send me out this time o’ year, / to sail upon the sea.” But no one can choose the time death calls. And despite the omens of doom that his men point out and their desire to avoid death, Sir Patrick and his crew must accept their fate.

Some of the crew and bystanders are in denial, or are so wrapped up in other things that they are completely unaware of it. The Scottish nobles sailing with Sir Patrick seem to think more about getting their fine shoes wet than they do about their own imminent deaths. Waiting for their men to return, ladies stand on the shore waiting with fans and gold combs in their hair. These glittering signs of the world’s transient pleasures highlight their ignorance of the fate of their men, indeed the fate that awaits them sometime in the future. The images recall the famous words from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation.” And so “lang, lang, may the ladies stand,” waiting with their baubles and fashion as if everything were fine and in the end there would be a happy ending.


A ballad tends to be a purely narrative poem—that is, it tells a story—as a rule concentrating on a single incident or situation. In “Sir Patrick Spens,” that event is a shipwreck. Written in a traditional ballad form, the poem is composed of four-line stanzas. Typically, the first and third lines of each stanza have four accents, while the second and fourth lines have three accents. Although ballads are usually unrhymed, they were originally composed to be sung. Their accents form a rhythm, and ballads have a musical quality and regular beat when read. Notice the accents in the first four lines of “Sir Patrick Spens”.

The king   sit in Dumfer  ling toune,  
Drink ing the blude -reid wine:
quhar  will I get guid sail or
To sail  this schip  of mine?

The ballad’s rhythm is reinforced by the repetition of sounds. In “Sir Patrick Spens,” we find consonance, (repetition of consonants), assonance (repetition of vowels), and sibilance (repetition of the sounds of “s” and “c”). Notice the ways that repetitions of “i” sounds in “king, “in,” “drinking,” and “wine” and of “d” sounds in “Dumferling,” “drinking,” and “blude-reid” reinforce the rhythm.

Historical Context

Scotland in the United Kingdom

Scotland was in a transition period when “Sir Patrick Spens” first appeared in print. It had been an independent kingdom until 1707, when the Treaty of Union was signed with Great Britain, making Scotland part of the United Kingdom. The Union was long in coming, considering the two kingdoms had been ruled by the same monarch for more than one hundred years. Both countries had their own reasons for wanting union. For Britain it meant security from attacks by her old enemy from the south, France. For Scotland it meant economic assistance from her more prosperous neighbor.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1765: The English Parliament passes the Stamp Act. Later in the year, the law gives rise to the slogan “No taxation without representation” and contributes to the mood of discontent that eventually leads to the American Revolution.

    Today: Growing numbers of Americans are dissatisfied with the federal tax system. The Republican Party makes tax reform a major part of its party platform.

  • 1765: James Watt invents an efficient steam engine that will help usher in the industrial revolution.

    Today: Micromachines, often too small to be visible to the naked eye, are prevalent in the automobile industry. It is predicted that they will soon be able to be implanted in human bodies where they will monitor and correct health problems.

  • 1765: The world’s first savings bank opens.

    Today: Banks are becoming more and more “virtual” with transactions handled electronically by telephone or computer.

  • 1765: The Portuguese Inquisition abolishes the auto-da-fe (burning at the stake) as a punishment for Jews and heretics.

    Today: The execution of Karla Faye Tucker, a brutal murderer and self-proclaimed reborn Christian, rekindles the debate over the legitimacy of capital punishment in the United States.

Most overt Scottish resistance to the union was put down within a few decades. However, the spirit of rebellion lived on in Scotland in the eighteenth century. In fact, Scotland provided support to the Jacobites in their attempt to overthrow the British Hanoverian monarch in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Scottish Jacobite uprisings were squelched in 1715 and 1745.

In an attempt to root out the last traces of Scottish disloyalty, parliament enacted the Abolition of Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act in 1747. Since prehistoric times the Scottish highlands had been ruled by the clan system. Clan members and warriors swore their allegiance to the clan chieftain. The Act abolished the clan system with a single blow. The wearing of kilts and tartans was forbidden; clan members were made to swear oaths to the British monarch. Clan chiefs lost their feudal rights and became mere landowners.

Prosperity integrated Scotland into the British realm better than any legislation. English farming methods were introduced, and by the end of the century Scottish farmers were teaching the English. With access to English markets, linen production doubled between 1750 and 1775. The Scottish mining industry grew rapidly as well. Missionary activity and a road-building program into the Highlands also increased Scotland’s contacts with the outside world.

Aftermath of War with France

War broke out between England and France in 1756. Known as the Seven Years War, the conflict is considered an early “World War,” in which Britain and Prussia were allied against France, Austria, Spain and Russia. English and French armies fought in Europe, India, the Caribbean, and North America.

When the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1763, it was viewed as a great triumph in England. Canada was ceded to Britain by the treaty; this greatly strengthened the English position in North America. The merchant class savored the victory. Trade, they thought, would flourish with new supplies of raw materials and new markets for English goods the colonies could provide.

The war, however, proved costly for England. Rather than boosting the English economy, the high cost of the war served to depress it. Because of the enormous strain it placed on the English treasury, parliament and the Crown had to create new sources of revenue. This situation resulted in various tax measures, like the Stamp Act in 1765.

The Stamp Act caused growing dissatisfaction with English rule in the American colonies. And with Canada under English control, the American colonists had less use for English armies for protection from the threat of a French invasion. An important tie to England was suddenly cut. The high cost of the war also led to the deterioration of the British military, in particular the Royal Navy. That decline played an important role in England’s defeat in the American Revolution.

Critical Overview

“Sir Patrick Spens” is a Scottish folk ballad, which was probably composed sometime during the 15th century. It was first published in 1765 in Thomas Percy’s famous collection, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (most often referred to as Percy’s Reliques). While ballads tell stories, they do so in special ways, generally by presenting events without much descriptive detail and sometimes leaving out key events entirely.

In “Sir Patrick Spens,” for example, we never see the storm or the shipwreck. Instead, as Lloyd Frankenberg writes in his book Invitation to Poetry, all the action “is about to take place or has already gone by. The shipwreck is hats bobbing on the water.” M. J. C. Hodgart’s book The Ballads suggests that there are similarities among the ways ballads, cartoon strips, and films tell stories. In all of these forms, the narrative is presented not “as a continuous sequence of events but as a series of rapid flashes.” The ballad’s effect on us depends on which scenes are presented and how individual scenes are situated in the story as a whole. Also, ballads’ stories focus on the specific, rather than the general. As Arthur K. Moore writes in an essay in Comparative Literature, a ballad’s representation of a “particular disaster … tends to merge with the multiple of other fatal misadventures dogging the footsteps of mankind.” Ballads generally include little description and few observations about the action by the poem’s speaker (its persona), according to Gordon Hall Gerould’s book, The Ballad for Tradition. The significance of the events is left to the reader to decide. This means that although ballads may appear simple, they are deceptively so.


Jhan Hochman

Jhan Hochman is a writer and instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. In the following essay, Hochman discusses the role of loyalty in the poem “Sir Patrick Spens.”

The king’s drinking of the blood-red wine in the first stanza of the anonymous ballad, “Sir Patrick Spens,” provides a foreshadowing of the tragic deaths of Sir Patrick and his crew. While it is uncertain whether the Scottish king is aware of the risks of such a dangerous mission on the high seas, it hardly matters—Sir Patrick must do his duty, even if he and his crew of Scottish lords will end up forever on the ocean floor.

“Sir Patrick Spens” is considered a ballad, an old-English, rhymed-song form that tells a story. The poem is one of the oldest examples of the ballad in English; it was found by Thomas Percy (1729–1811) in what is now known as the Percy Folio, a handwritten manuscript of the mid-seventeenth century once owned by Humphrey Pitt of Shifnal. Percy included the ballad of “Sir Patrick Spens” in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), still the most important source of old English ballads.

As a narrative poem, “Sir Patrick Spens” is in the tradition of Homer’s great epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. In fact, “Sir Patrick Spens” bears comparison to The Odyssey. In Sir Patrick’s odyssey, however, it is uncertain whether Sir Patrick, unlike Odysseus, is a hero or a fool for having followed the king’s orders.

The ballad is composed of eleven quatrains (four-line stanzas), in which the second and fourth lines rhyme. The first and third lines contain four beats (tetrameter) and the second and third contain three beats (trimeter). Composed of five dramatic scenes, the poem utilizes a rather contemporary, sudden cinema-like cutting or montage between each scene.

The scenes are as follows: the first is of the elder knight recommending Sir Patrick for the mission. In the second, Sir Patrick reads the letter from the king as he walks the beach along the ocean where he eventually will drown. The third scene depicts Sir Patrick talking to his fearful crew. The fourth scene is of the wives of the ship’s crew waiting—somewhat like Odysseus’ wife Penelope—for the ship to return. The fifth and final scene shows Sir Patrick and his men drowned at the bottom of the ocean.

While these scenes now seem abrupt in transition, musical interludes played between scenes might once have prepared the listener for the radical changes. Stanza eight is the only exception to this list of scenes because it does not show a concrete scene but instead comments on the fear, or perhaps cowardice, of the crew.

Not only is “Sir Patrick Spens” a poem of scenes, but of images. The ballad is held together by bookend stanzas harboring similar tableau: the elder knight sitting at the right knee of the king in the first stanza, and the final stanza with the lords around the feet of Sir Patrick at the bottom of the ocean. The difference in position between king and knight and of Sir Patrick and his lords suggests a relationship of command and of loyalty. In his essay “Seven Types of Accuracy,” which appeared in The Iowa Review, Richard Moore has remarked that the men gathered around Sir Patrick at the end of the ballad poses a riddle: Why are the men gathered there?

Moore’s answer is that they had gathered at the feet of Sir Patrick in the final moments of the shipwreck in hopes he would save them. This contention could also indicate a newfound solidarity or resolution in the face of their collective end—especially if we recall that prior to the mission the men were worried about going on the voyage.

The men’s hesitation reminds the reader of the omen the men had seen the evening before, the new moon with the old moon in her arm described in stanza seven. This is the phase of the moon known as the waning crescent that “holds” the darkened portion in the hollow of its arc, the next phase of the moon being the darkened new moon. In some cosmologies, the moon corresponds to the changing phases of human life, and the completely invisible new moon on the cusp of two successive months would indicate death. It is possible the men believe the voyage will be dangerous because it will take place just prior to this deathly new moon. While this might be mere superstition, it is grounded in a bit of science since the moon does have a profound effect on the earth’s oceans and tides.

Still, Sir Patrick does not respond to this fear even though he must be aware of it; in stanza five, when he is seen walking the beach and reading the king’s letter, Sir Patrick remarks on the evil deed done to him by the king (or is it the elder knight?) for sending him and his men out on the sea during this time. One may also conjecture that the king knows this will be a dangerous mission because he is not interested in just any sailor but the best one available.

Another question must be asked at this point. What is this mission, anyway, and why is it so important that the king must risk all these lives and perhaps a precious cargo? Even with extensive historical research, this riddle is likely to remain unanswered.

A compelling image in the poem is that of lord’s ladies waiting for their men to return from the mission. The ladies’ fans and combs suggest a life of leisure and wealth that are powerless in buying off the weather in hopes of keeping their husbands alive. Folding fans—traditional symbols of the moon—also suggest the successive phases of the moon and the passage of time. The waiting of the women might also imply their helplessness. The women cannot search and rescue their husbands, nor can they easily move on and marry again. They are doomed to wait, perhaps long after they feel certain their husbands have perished. Was it for the precious goods like fans and gold combs that the men lost their lives?

If, as Sir Patrick says, this command that he sail at a bad time of the year, was an evil deed, why was it evil? Was it because he suffered the unluckiness of the draw? Or was it, as some critics suggest, because the elder knight was an enemy of Sir Patrick and he set Sir Patrick up for such a dangerous mission?

Another critic, Richard Moore, rejects this conjecture as absurd, and posits that the elder knight’s suggestion is merely to help the king and advance himself. Perhaps Moore is correct, for if the knight were an enemy, the theme would have been reinforced at the end of the poem and would show how one’s vaunted reputation (like that of Sir Patrick) can eventually destroy one.

This theme is touched on briefly when Sir Patrick reads the letter and laughs in stanza four. Moore asserts the laugh is provoked by the king’s remark that Sir Patrick has been recommended as the best sailor on the seas. If so, this is not just a laugh of humility, but a laugh acknowledging that Sir Patrick has been done in by his own renown.

So what, then, is the point of this poem? Is it a morality tale about how one should not obey the king when it means a suicide mission? Or a lesson on how honorable it is to do one’s duty, no matter what the consequences? In choosing the second answer, the poem seems to celebrate the fearless heroism

What Do I Read Next?

  • Like the sailors in “Sir Patrick Spens,” Dylan Thomas struggles against the inevitability of death in his poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”
  • In the Book of Job, the righteous man, Job, is beset by the loss of everything he holds dear and confronts God about his unjust fate.
  • A modern American ballad about a sea tragedy is “The Titanic” by Leadbelly. The lyrics can be found in Folk Songs of North America by Alan Lomax.

of Sir Patrick. The poem should then be considered a heroic epic, not a tragedy.

Why does the balladeer conclude the poem with the overwhelming image of death, of corpses submerged at the bottom of the ocean? To answer this, the last two lines must get special attention. In one interpretation, the final image could reinforce the concept of loyalty, whether to king or captain. Another interpretation might be that the final image is not dramatic, but absurd, like a surreal and morbid group portrait. To see the image as absurd leads the reader to conclude that suicidal loyalty is ridiculous. Sir Patrick becomes a negative example, a fool who obeyed his king. By the same token, Sir Patrick’s men would also be fools who, against their better judgment, did their duty so as not to be branded traitors or cowards.

Whatever the truth of either interpretation, the reader’s conclusion will likely depend on his or her view of loyalty—a twentieth-century perspective, influenced by the largest number of men and women in any century that maimed and killed out of loyalty to leader, country, and honor.

Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.

Carolyn Meyer

Carolyn Meyer has a Ph.D. in Irish and British literature and has written numerous articles on contemporary Irish poetry. In the following essay, Meyer analyzes how “Sir Patrick Spens” fits into the category of ballad and comments on the poem’s ultimately tragic storyline.

Simple, spirited and singable, a folk ballad is a poem of rhythmically distinctive style that tells a story in an engaging and accessible way. It owes its origins to Europe of the late Middle Ages, where it began as “a song sung while dancing,” a meaning that still holds true for the modern folk songs that are its musical descendants. As part of the oral tradition, ballads survived in the collective consciousness of cultures across Europe and North America, having been transmitted from generation to generation as a kind of verbal legacy until they eventually found their way into print, in important compilations such as Francis J. Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads(1882-98) and Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry(1765). Anonymous compositions whose origins are a source of endless debate, ballads may be the works of individuals or the creations of entire communities. Each new singer of a ballad, in the course of its successive re-telling, becomes as much an original composer as a preserver or guardian of tradition. Given the margin for error and individual embellishment, variations are bound to occur, and this explains why some ballads exist in several different versions.

Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney called medieval ballads “the darling songs of the common people.” Their authorship resides with the people, as do their themes, which are more inclined to appeal to the heart than the head. Their main function is, of course, to entertain, yet as living artifacts of pre-literate and illiterate folk cultures, they also tend to mirror common fears, fantasies, and aspirations; comment on life; and offer strategies for living. The events they describe have closest affinity with what ballad scholar Alfred B. Friedman has called in his introduction to The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World “the stuff of tabloid journalism—sensational tales of lust, revenge and domestic crime,” whose substance never strays far from the twinned themes of love and death. Acts of betrayal, infidelity, incest, murder, even parricide and infanticide, abound, as do jealous husbands, heartless stepmothers, parted lovers, and women cruelly wronged or spurned. There are also ballads of the supernatural and those that recount the deeds of gallant knights and heroic adventurers. Of this final ballad grouping, one of the best known is “Sir Patrick Spens,” a traditional folk ballad in Scottish dialect that tells the tragic tale of a dauntless sea captain who, at his king’s commanding, must undertake an ill-timed sea voyage that he knows will spell his doom. Sir Patrick is a hero who knows his fate, who bitterly declaims his misfortune, but who has the fortitude and resilience to overcome his grief and bewilderment and persevere in spite of that knowledge. Achieving a realism and immediacy through devices which prolong the intensity of its highly charged moments, “Sir Patrick Spens” is remarkable among ballads for its fine use of dramatic irony, contrast, and terse understatement.

While its ironic vision is rare in traditional balladry, “Sir Patrick Spens” is united with ballads the world over through a number of standard conventions, rhetorical devices, and formulaic features. A ballad is essentially a compact story-poem in which the narrative is related impersonally and with rigid economy—stripped down to the bare bones and often leaving gaps that the reader is relied upon to bridge, much like the technique of cinematic montage. A ballad usually focuses on a single crucial episode, plunging almost immediately into the climactic event and then proceeding swiftly toward an outcome that is, almost without exception, an unhappy one. (Appropriately most ballad tunes are written in a minor key.) In the rush to reach the all-important catastrophe, there is little time to supply circumstantial details, delineate character, probe psychological motivation, or draw a moral. The poet, functioning as an anonymous communal voice, keeps himself out of the poem, rarely intruding to offer his own subjective comments. Instead, events are shown or dramatized and protagonists are given the opportunity to speak for themselves in plentiful, though mostly untagged, exchanges of dialogue. The language is simple, unequivocal, and concrete, punctuated by the occasional stock phrase or epithet, such as “lily white hands” or, in the case of “Sir Patrick Spens,” “my mirry men.” Repetition, in the form of the rhyme, assonance, and refrain which bulk large in ballads, not only assists memorization but helps to thicken the emotional atmosphere, or as poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge explained, “to discharge emotion that could not be exhausted in one saying.” Incremental repetition, a type frequently found in ballads like “Sir Patrick Spens” (see stanzas nine and ten), advances the story through minor successive changes to repeated lines and phrases. A ballad is also instantly recognizable by its short, four-line stanzas (called quatrains) of alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter (lines of four and three stressed syllables respectively) that rhyme abcb and give what critic Paul Fussell has described in Poetic Meter

“. .‘Sir Patric Spens’ is remarkable among ballads for its fine use of dramatic irony, contrast, and terse understatement.”

and Poetic Form as “the illusion of primitive sincerity and openness.”

Robust yet full of foreboding, “Sir Patrick Spens” exposes the harsh machinations of fate that govern human life and make for both its glory and impermanence. Sir Patrick’s narrative begins with a ballad’s characteristic abruptness, and, at once, it introduces the dichotomy of king and subject that continues as the action moves rapidly from the pleasures of the Scottish court, to the dangers of life on the high seas, back to the splendors of aristocratic society, and finally to the obscure ocean depths. The first three stanzas concern the inciting action—the king’s need for a “guid sailor / To sail this schip of mine”—followed by his decision, made on his elderly knight’s recommendation, to secure the services of Sir Patrick Spens. Where the ship is bound for is not indicated in the most widely anthologized version of the poem. Other, later versions of the ballad, however, name Norway as the voyage’s destination. These versions apparently have historical foundation in two conflated events from the late-thirteenth-century reign of Alexander III of Scotland: one being the wreck of a vessel ferrying Scots nobles on their homeward journey from the nuptials of Margaret, Alexander’s daughter, and Eric, King of Norway; the other, the disappearance of Alexander’s granddaughter, the Maid of Norway, on her way to wed Edward I of England. But in this particular version of the poem, the lack of any reason for the voyage, coupled with the questionable circumstances in which the plan is hatched and the shadowy motives of the king and his company, only add to the injustice of Sir Patrick’s inescapable situation. While everything about Sir Patrick is uniformly “guid” or good—his seamanship, the ship, and his character—the king is subtly implicated in the captain’s undoing. The king, along with his knights, not only appears sedentary—for he “sits in Dumferling toune,” the royal capital—but seems devoted to the good life, “[d]rinking the blude-reid wine” as he conducts important affairs of state. The life of ease and repose he leads contrasts sharply with the physical hardships endured by the men of action, such as the vigorous Sir Patrick “walking on the strand,” who carry out his orders. In one of the ballad’s few details, the wine the king drinks is said to be not merely red, but a vivid “blude-reid,” an ominous symbol of the monarch’s complicity in shedding the blood of his countrymen. Letters seldom bring good news in the realm of balladry, and the king’s “braid letter” is no exception, since by it Sir Patrick’s fate is quite literally “signed,” sealed and delivered. “Broad” may simply mean bold or unequivocal, but it may also imply a drunken coarseness or crudity of expression; both meanings seem applicable since the letter’s contents are enough to move Sir Patrick to both laughter and tears.

Sir Patrick’s life lies not only in the king’s hands, but in those of his elderly advisor, quite literally his “right-hand man” (sitting “at the king’s richt kne”), who responds to the king’s question in a familiar ballad formula: “Patrick Spens is the best sailor / That sails upon the se.” Sir Patrick is paradoxically condemned by praise, his reputed excellence as a mariner the indirect cause of his undoing. But if the circumstances in which he receives the letter are any indication—he is first seen taking his daily constitutional on a beach—he fully lives up to his reputation as a man of the sea.

Stanzas four and five trace Sir Patrick’s gradual realization of the letter’s grave implications, portraying a welter of emotions, from initial shock and stunned disbelief to doleful melancholy and reproachful suspicion. Suspense is generated by a device common to ballads, a sequence (“first … then”) which is then combined with incremental repetition to capture Sir Patrick’s rapid alteration from laughter (perhaps at the thought that the king is joking) to tears:

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

Sir Patrick racks his brain for a possible reason for his seeming persecution, feverishly stumbling over the same thoughts again and again. Intuitively, he already seems to understand that this will be his final voyage. Experience has taught him that “this time o’ the yeir” is inopportune, even hazardous, for sea travel:

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

A rapid jump in the narrative, further contributing to the ballad’s montage effect, finds Sir Patrick on board his ship, putting on a brave face for the sake of his crew as they ready to make sail the next morning. Undaunted, perhaps even accepting or defiant of his fate, Sir Patrick assumes command with an air of business as usual; he even sounds a good deal like Robin Hood as he addresses his crew as “my mirry men all” and exhorts them to “[m]ak haste, mak haste” with their preparations. But these good-natured gestures, aimed at boosting morale, are fraught with irony. There is no cause for merriment: the sailors make haste toward certain danger and their “guid schip,” as at least one of the crew suspects, will be the means to their demise. In answer to Sir Patrick’s forced optimism, one anxious crew member, so overwrought he says “I feir” not once but twice, predicts disaster on the basis of an omen he had read in the previous night’s sky—“the new moone, / Wi’ the auld moone in hir arme.” This singularly beautiful poetic image is one that otherwise spells disaster for the superstitious mariners.

With another abrupt transition, stanza eight marks a shift from the narrative of Sir Patrick to a vignette of the vain and haughty Scots nobles who travel on his ship. By virtue of their titles and all that hereditary privilege bestows, they deem themselves much too good to wet even the cork heels of their shoes. But what fate has in store for them will prove this petty concern laughable. In due course, much more than their shoes will get wet—in fact their shoes are more likely to float than they will be. Nor will their wealth and power save them. The finality of their situation is rendered with the stanza’s shift from present to past tense:

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

As in Shakespeare’s famous lines “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It, 2.7.139-40), real life here is compared with play-acting, only in this case misadventure stops the proceedings and the play goes unfinished. In an indictment of materialism sharpened through a mordantly satirical comment on the pretensions of the upper classes, the rich are deprived of their belongings as well as their dignity as the ship goes down. With a bold stroke of physical humor that seems not only ludicrous but pathetic, their fine hats float above them, the only markers of their watery grave. It is thus through understatement that the ballad’s central event, the tragic shipwreck, is suggested rather than painstakingly described. In the few details that show how the mighty are fallen, a powerful statement is made on the vanity and ephemeral precariousness of human life. Paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Two parallel stanzas, nine and ten, enlarge upon this theme by contrasting the resplendent Scottish noblewomen, ever expectant of their husbands’ return, with the stark reality that no such return will be possible. The ladies are lavishly outfitted with fans and adorned with gold combs, but the implication is clearly that their riches will do them no good in bringing back their lost lords or in serving as a replacement for their loved ones. Their long and patient vigil, made to seem more tragic, protracted, and suspenseful by the doubled adverbs “O lang, lang” and by incremental repetition—“lang, lang may their ladies sit” and “lang, lang may the ladies stand”—will ultimately prove futile. They may well wait forever, as the austere comment closing the section states with a resonant finality: “For they’ll se thame na mair.”

What remains unanswered until the end of the poem is the exact fate of Sir Patrick Spens. The concluding stanza specifies the whereabouts of his vessel at the time of its sinking, “haf owre to Aberdour,” a potent reminder of a destination within reach but forever unattainable. In a parting irony, Sir Patrick’s body is revealed to lie “fiftie fadom deip … Wi’ the Scots lords at his feit,” as if symbolically paid homage in a justly fitting—if macabre—tribute to his true nobility. “Sir Patrick Spens” tells the tragic tale of a shipwreck where the spectacle of the event itself is overshadowed by its emotionally charged prelude and aftermath. Sir Patrick does what no one should be forced to do to enter into dangerous circumstances knowing he will not come out alive. Nevertheless, Sir Patrick’s example shows how this should be done—with a resolve outfacing death. He is both a hero for the glory of his perseverance and a victim for his sub-ordination to the whims of politics and to the insidious workings of fate, which neither worldly wealth and power nor love can alter or deter.

Source: Carolyn Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.

William M. Ryan

In the following excerpt, Ryan examines the ways in which version A of “Sir Patrick Spens” deviates from the formula of most traditional ballads and, in particular, deems it “distinctive in lacing … tragedy with dramatic irony.”

Two overlapping fallacies which go their perennial way in oppressing the popular taste in literature are the seldom examined beliefs that old is good per se and that all of the old pieces within a certain period and genre are equal parts of the whole. The drab and the mediocre have been in discriminately dissected along with masterpieces, and students have been fed a diet mixed with both the poor fare and the good. Medieval drama is a case in point; the “English and Scottish popular ballads” are another. By lifting one ballad out of its crowded depository and demonstrating its superiority over other ballads which have formulaic similarities, the present article pays tribute to a great poem that is deserving of more attention than critics have been wont to give it. The relative merit of “Sir Patrick Spens” [version A, in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1956] is my only concern. Authorship and date of composition of almost all medieval and Renaissance ballads being presently and perhaps everlastingly beyond reach, those containing parallels to “Sir Patrick Spens” have been selected irrespective of chronology, and possible direction of influence has been ignored.

The stage on which “a’ the play wer playd” is a large one—many actors, a wide frame of action—and “Sir Patrick Spens” consequently does not cast an incantatory spell as darkly and deeply as does, for example, “Bonny Barbara Allen” with its warping combination of intimacy and alienation. “Sir Patrick Spens,” however, treating as it does of a king and a powerful nobleman who suffers violent death, contains the kernel of true dramatic tragedy and is, moreover, distinctive in lacing this tragedy with dramatic irony of such bitterness and weighted implication that it compensates for slight substance and the relative lack of narrative development. The stanzas are carefully laid, and because so much is implied, so little given, the ending comes almost as suddenly as the losing of the boat and the drowning of its crew. Yet, despite this brevity, the poem sets up suspense for a few lines; e.g. through Sir Patrick’s horrified “O wha is this has don this deid” and the “I feir a deadlie storme” of one of his men.

Special use is made of meter. We have not entered as far as the third foot of the opening line, have read only the first word of the second foot, when a mild metrical shock occurs. Unlike the nursery rhyme king and queen who were in the counting house and parlor, respectively, with the stress falling on the preposition (not the verb was), the ballad’s king sits, and as it happens, he sits in Dumfermline, where he is expected to be found sitting, since it is the royal burgh. For a verb like sits to receive stress is quite normal, just as it is for the verb-to-be not to receive it. What is not normal, however, is for a monosyllabic verb to constitute an internal foot. Attention is shortly drawn to another sitter, the elder knight at the king’s right knee, because the verb is again stressed following a noun phonologically similar to “king,” the noun “knicht.” This repetition contrasts with the single appearance of the related verbs “walking,” “lies,” and “stand,” which add something, however little, to the impression that there is peculiarity in the king’s sitting and his minister’s too. As the story progresses it is clearly seen to be concerned with men of physical action and other men who, in the manner of the brass in any war, precipitate the action by issuing commands from behind desks which are behind the lines. The simple repetition would seem to contribute to the linkage of the two characters.

No sooner is the first line finished than meter again makes itself felt, this time in a telling participle at the beginning of line two—“drinking.” The stem drink is the first foot, and in this position of emphatic prominence, coming as it does after the even more conspicuous “sits,” it directs attention to the king’s second condition, as it were. He sits; he drinks. Others go out onto the cold, rough sea. Discovery that the wine is red and not only red but blood-red (note the natural stress pattern /x) adds to the subtle impression that this drinking is of particular importance to the story, an impression soon confirmed by the king’s metaphorical shedding of the blood of his subjects.

The reader generally acquainted with the popular ballads will appreciate the strokes of elaboration in our poem, clear sign of a special talent, as a formula is adopted, then built upon. Someone sits and drinks wine in other ballads—“Lamkin,” “Brown Robin,” “The White Fisher”—but only in “Sir Patrick Spens” is the combination found of sits as monosyllabic foot and wine that is “blude-reid” (the stress is on blude), adding a splash of color and an ominous symbol, both of which were welcomed by the medieval audience. Blood and wine were, moreover, commonly associated in popular literature and therefore in people’s minds, quite apart from the sacrament of the Eucharist.…

When the king, perhaps on drunken impulse, sings out “O whar,” he sounds like many another ballad character; the two words are heard in at least twelve ballads, by my count, and continue in modern usage in popular songs like “Billy Boy” and “Where and O Where Is My Little Wee Dog?”… In eight of the old ballads the query regards a “little” or “wee” or “bonny” boy, who is said to be used in almost all instances a messenger. As we have seen and shall see repeatedly, familiar matter is handled differently in “Sir Patrick Spens” A: it is a “guid sailor” who is called for, a man to serve as ship’s master, not a boy to go aloft as a look out.… The king specifies not only a sailor but a “gúid sailór” (à la Française), and the stress pattern is repeated to strong effect in the following stanza when Sir Patrick is called “the bést sailór.”…

With abruptness typical of medieval narrative, going all the way back to Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry, the king writes Sir Patrick a letter—a broad letter perhaps so called for one of two reasons: its wasteful calligraphy, the result of a drinker’s loss of motor control; its unusual length, product of drunken garrulousness as he first, presumably, greets his noble reader with some flattering salutation or other and a few pleasantries before coming to the point. No reason is implied for the letter’s misleading first part. Not only did someone’s writing a letter usually presage disaster in ballads; a long or broad letter, signed with the writer’s own hand or sealed by him, was even worse. Again a poor choice is avoided in “Sir Patrick Spens” A: instead of specifying the familiar bonny boy as deliverer of the letter, the letter is simply “sent.”…

When the letter was delivered, Sir Patrick was walking. Now, walking, of itself does not seem to have much traditional significance in this poetry. Characters walk here or there in a few of the ballads, just as characters sit by windows or on castle walls in others, but these have none of the ironic association conveyed by the king’s sitting in “Sir Patrick Spens.”… At most, walking is being set as a counterweight against thematic dying—motion against repose. From a more general point of view, however, “walking” is probably best taken as mere formulaic filler, as in “The Twa Corbies,” “Captain Car,” and many other ballads.

Again, as we have come to expect, “Sir Patrick Spens” A works the old into something fresh. The good sailor is “walking on the sand”—beach or strand presumably being his habitual choice for constitutionals and dramatically the most appropriate place for a sea dog who is already in a state of nervous apprehension.

With “first line” and “next line” the poem conforms to a catalogue of enumeration that is ubiquitous in the world of balladry. Even here, however, a point can be made in defense of “Sir Patrick Spens A, for at least fifteen of the ballads with a “first … next” or “first … second” sequence and an equal number with tear-blinded eyes are happy affairs, belying the seemingly implicit threat in the stages of the action.… “Sir Patrick Spens” is not … the first or the only ballad but is a rare one in making tighter suspense through this sequence.

Unconsciously mimicking the king’s “O whar,” “O wha,” says Sir Patrick, “… has don this ill deid,” and like the king he is of course perfectly aware of the answer to his own question. That is, if the king was determined to do an ill deed it was no doubt poor Patrick who must fall victim to it. The stricken man’s woeful cry repeats “deid,” adding “ill” to the second. He is in effect saying, “How could you do this to me?,” “How can this happen to me?,” “Who ever heard of such a thing?” He may also be indicting the prompter who named him to the king, but the idea loses cogency when the facts of dreadful hardship and all but certain death are considered; in this extremity, the king’s orders to sail in the morning being already signed and sealed, court politics will not matter much and there is too little time to seek a remedy.…

“Mak hast, mak haste” is, like various duplicate imperatives in the ballads, spoken with tension at a critical moment. So far as I know it is unique except for its appearance in the inferior “Bonny Birdy” where the voice that utters the taut injunction is no less and no more than that of the bird itself, a far cry, if a pun may be allowed, from the anxious skipper’s order to his crew, whom he addresses as “my mirry men all.” Considering the universal popularity of “merry men,” it was almost inevitable that the phrase, rather than a plain “my men,” would appear in “Sir Patrick Spens.” The fact that it is a tragic ballad would be no deterrent; in the majority of instances the poems with “merry men” end unhappily, and in a few there is cruel irony like that of “Sir Patrick Spens” A, where the master is speaking to men who must die with him.…

If “Sir Patrick Spens” A must be said to have admitted an overworked formula in its single use of “my mirry men” it may also be said to have done so with restraint.

There is a touch of mild irony in “our guid ship” in the sixth stanza: with no cause for optimism the captain and the crew will not be thinking positively about the craft which, so it seems, is to take them to their death. Sir Patrick’s forced cheeriness is calculated, of course, to keep the “merry” men’s spirits as high as possible. Irony is more pointed in the following stanza as one of the crew expresses the dismay he felt at sight of the old-new moon, an omen to be perhaps taken seriously in one of the other seasons but a mere redundancy in the present perilous situation.

Stanza 8 possesses the most obvious specimens of ironical humor—the litotes of the sailors’ being loath to wet their corkheeled shoes and the floating-hat property familiar in slapstick comedy. (A clumsy put-down that was popular in the nineteen forties enjoined the object of displeasure to “walk west till your hat floats.” The comedian Buster Keaton—but not his funny hat—disappears underwater as his boat goes down.) In this case the headgear of the noblemen constitute the only marker their grave will ever have, and appropriately the vestigial hats are set afloat in a context and atmosphere, briefly created in line 31, of playacting, a calculated use of man’s ancient practice of referring to real-life events—any accident of misadventure—in terms of plays and stories, as in “news story,” “play a heroic part,” “dénouement.”

An adverb heard once in stanza 8 is used with duplication in the following two stanzas. With a metrical break similar to that in the first line of the poem, “lang, lang” receives two stresses.…

In these closing stanzas of “Sir Patrick Spens” the ladies’ fans are a reminder that the lost crew were not ordinary seamen but the cream of Scottish knighthood, a further irony insofar as wasting of human life may be calibrated relatively. The ladies’ gold combs share this significance and have also perhaps a deeper one, for at least it may be noted in passing that combs have been objects of superstition since their earliest use and in all parts of the world. In the time of St. Cuthbert in Anglo-Saxon England combs were buried with the illustrious dead because of a belief that “by combing his hair a man tidied his brains which lay beneath it” [according to Peter Hunter Blair in his Northumbria in the Days of Bede]. James G. Frazer cites comb superstitions among natives of Sarawak, ancient Romans, Choctaw, Omaha, and Natchez American Indians [in his book The Golden Bough].

The comb, then, as token of both life and death, would have definite associations in the medieval mind, and the gold combs in “Sir Patrick Spens” A, though they figure as ornaments, not as utensils, may have been intended as portents or symbols of ill fortune.…

Even the ladies’ waiting brings ironic hint of the comic, in the same manner as Chaucer’s very numerous occupationes suddenly abandon someone or other, to the reader’s amusement. The closing stanza conveys the information that the distance the storm-racked boat was able to make was “half owre to Aberdour.” To indicate similar limitation of distance, lesser balladeers, including revisers of “Sir Patrick Spens,” usually fell back on “had not … a league (but one, three, etc.).” As poet and reader take leave forever of the sunken boat and its lifeless crew, Sir Patrick is shown somewhat elevated even in death “Wi the Scots lords at his feit,” probably by virtue of his having been lashed to the rudder during the storm. The king still “sits in Dumferling toune,” while the good sailor holds his rightful place over his men, all unbeknownst to them and to anyone who has eyes to see, to all, alas, but the fishes of the deep.

Source: William M. Ryan, “Formula and Tragic Irony in ‘Sir Patrick Spens,’” in Southern Folklore Quarterly, Vol. 44, 1980, pp. 73–83.


Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Child, Francis James, “Sir Patrick Spens,” in English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Dover Publications, Inc., 1965, Vol. 2, pp. 17-33.

Drabble, Margaret, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Frankenberg, Lloyd, “Sir Patrick Spens,” in Invitation to Poetry: A Round of Poems from John Skelton to Dylan Thomas Arranged with Comments, Garden City: Dolphin Books, 1956, pp. 113-15.

Friedman, Alfred B., introduction to The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World, New York: Viking, 1956.

Fussell, Paul, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, New York: Random House, 1965.

Gerould, Gordon Hall, “The Nature of Ballads,” in The Ballad of Tradition, Gordian Press, 1974, pp. 1-14.

Hodgart, M. J. C., “The Poetry of Ballads,” in The Ballads, Hutchinson University Library, 1950, pp. 27-35.

Moore, Arthur K., “The Literary Status of the English Popular Ballad,” Comparative Literature Vol. 10, No. 1, 1958, pp. 1-20.

Moore, Richard, “Seven Types of Accuracy,” in The Iowa Review, Spring 1982, pp. 152-63.

For Further Study

Frankenberg, Lloyd, Invitation to Poetry, Doubleday & Company, 1956.

Explores how the fragmentary technique of “Sir Patrick Spens” contributes to the poems allusive richness.

Hodgart, M. J. C., The Ballads, Hutchinson’s University Library, 1950.

Compares the technique in “Sir Patrick Spens” with jump-cutting techniques of modern movies.

Van Doren, Mark, “On Sir Patrick Spens,” in Introduction to Literature, edited by Louis G. Locke, William M. Gibson, and George Arms, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1963.

Van Doren examines the emotional force of “Sir Patrick Spens.”