The last section of the NAEL is “Poems in Progress”, which reproduces the manuscripts of some poems printed in the anthology. I thought I’d put off the final summary unless I’m really done with the first volume, but I found I have really nothing to say about these manuscripts except for, like, writers cross out a lot of things when they are writing. To say more, I would have to go back to “Lycidas” and do line-by-line compare and contrast, which I really don’t feel like doing, because “Lycidas” was not that thrilling the first time round. I guess the editors of the NAEL felt that way, too, because in the subsequent edition this section was dropped. So I’m going to try and read this section, but I won’t probably be blogging about it.
And thus my journey through the first volume of the NAEL ends! I can’t remember exactly when it started – probably over four years ago – but it was both enjoyable and profitable. Unfortunately the fat paperback volumes are not really designed to stand so much wear and tear – this is how my book looks. I think I’m going to read the 2nd volume in the electronic edition, because I would be sorry to see it end up in the similar condition.
Now this is a ballad inspired by real historical events, unlike the other vague speculations about what could be the real story behind “Sir Patrick Spens”. James Earl of Murray was engaged in a long feud with Earl of Huntly and King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) chose Huntly, of all people, to bring him to his trial when Murray was suspected of plotting against the king. This unsurprisingly ended with a debacle and Murray was killed as a result, not yet 30. The ballad is a lament for the dead young earl, whom “they have slain.. and laid him on the green” (hence the term “mondegreen“) The second stanza is supposedly the chiding Huntly received from the king, saying that he just ordered Huntly to bring him, not to kill him. Huntly did get off suspiciously easily, and then immediately got into his own plotting, reading about which made me very tired. James VI & I doesn’t have particularly good press, but the fact that he survived and died natural death makes me grudgingly admire him. The following stanzas list all the achievements of Murray: riding at the ring (meaning the ring impaled on the knights’ spears during the tournaments), being the handsomest nobleman and supposedly the queen’s love (no proof of that). Also the last stanza, imagining his lady looking out for him in vain from the Castle Doune is not correct, since Murray’s young wife died just a few months before him.
“The Three Ravens” is another story about death, told from the viewpoint of the three ravens who are wondering where they could find something to eat. One of them mentions the body of a slain knight, but in fact this knight would not make a good meal, because he is closely guarded by his hounds and his hawks. Then a pregnant doe comes to him, and she is a metaphor for his lover or wife: she kisses his wounds, takes him on her back, carries him to his grave and buries him. And then she dies herself. The ballad ends with the wish that all of us could have such hawks, such hounds, and such a lover.
The famous “Sir Patrick Spens” has so little plot that I can deal with it very briefly: the king of Scotland asks who is the best sailor, a knight recommends Sir Patrick Spens, and then the king sends Sir Patrick on what is apparently a suicide mission, since Sir Patrick knows very well that sailing in winter is dangerous, while the king apparently doesn’t know that, so in the end Sir Patrick and all his companions drown. What is interesting is the sense of doom the ballad builds: Sir Patrick laughs and cries when he reads the letter from the king, then he immediately orders his men to get on board, while the nameless sailor warns him he saw bad omens. There is also a kind of Schadenfreude, as the ballad describes how the Scottish lords didn’t like to wet their cork heels, but soon their hats were bobbing on the waves, and their ladies in their finery are going to wait in vain for them, because Sir Patrick Spens now lies “fifty fadom deep” in the sea with all the Scottish lords at his feet.
“Bonny Barbara Allan” is quite a mysterious song. Around Martinmas (November 11) Sir John Graeme falls in love with Barbara Allan and apparently dies because of his love for her. Barbara comes to see him on his deathbed, but she reminds him about a time when he drank in a tavern and forgot to drank her health. Then he turns his face towards the wall, Barbara gets up and leaves slowly. She has not gone a mile or two when she hears the death bells ringing and she hears in their sound “Woe to Barbara Allan”. Then she asks her mother to make her bed for her because she is going to die tomorrow, too. I had to read the Wikipedia entry (I know) to realize that John Graeme asks Barbara to love him back and she refuses because of the slight. Previously I thought she literally killed him for overlooking her, like the poisonous beloved of Lord Randall:
“The Wife of Usher’s Well” is a more straightforward story about the return from the dead. The sons of a wealthy widow of the title go to sea and just after a week she gets the bad news they are dead. She makes the wish that the wind should never cease until her sons return to her “in flesh and blood”. Indeed, on Martinmas (again) the sons return, wearing the hats made of birk from the trees of Paradise. The happy mother orders her maid to heat the water for the guests and makes them a bed. They lie down together in one bed, with their mother sitting at their bedside. When the first cock crows, the eldest says to the youngest it’s time they went, and the youngest echoes it back, in the typical ballad repetition. The sons say ominously that if they are missing at dawn they must suffer. They say their goodbyes to the mother, the farm, and the maid. And then the story ends. Both ballads are written in the typical ballad stanza, alternating 4-beat and 3-beat lines, with thymes abcb.
Today I’m starting the section with popular ballads, which became an object of academic interest since Bishop Percy published his collection in 1765. The first one is “Lord Randall”, which like many ballads has the form of a conversation between the title character and his mother. She asks him where he’s been, he says he’s been hunting and asks her, like he is going to in every stanza, to make his bed for him because he’s tired and wants to lie down. She asks him where he had his dinner, and he tells her he ate with his true love. She asks him what he’s had and he says eels boiled in broth. She then asks suspiciously what happened to his bloodhounds, and he says they swelled and died (you’d thought bloodhounds would be more easily alerted by any funny smell). She then says she is afraid he’s been poisoned, and he confirms that, finally saying that he wants her to make his bed because he’s “sick at the heart”.
Ballads, like folk tales, come in many different versions, and I couldn’t find exactly the one reprinted in the NAEL (from Child’s magisterial collection), so I picked this one, just because I like Harry Belafonte, and also because it is close to this text (the text in the NAEL does not include the last two stanzas).
The poem was written towards the end of Cowper’s life, in the very gloomy period when he lost his lifelong platonic companion Mary Unwin and hardly wrote anything. It is inspired by an episode from Lord Anston’s Voyage, describing the voyage around the globe which made this admiral famous in Britain, but which came at heavy cost (he set out with six ships, returned in one). The poet identifies with the unlucky man who was washed overboard on the Atlantic – “such a hapless wretch as I”. The sailor loved his captain and his country, but was doomed never to see them again. He fights for his life and shouts; his friends try to turn the ship and save him, but in the raging storm it is too dangerous for all of them and finally they have to give up. They throw him a cask and some rope, but they know it’s all in vain. They are forced to be pitiless and he even does not blame them, but “yet bitter felt it still to die”. He fights hard for a long time, but finally his comrades can’t hear his voice anymore and he sinks. No poet wrote an elegy for him, but, Cowper says, he is described feelingly and listed by name by Anson, so it’s as good to be mourned by a national hero as by a bard. So Cowper’s poem is not an elegy, but he writes about him because he sees a similarity between himself and the victim: “misery still delights to trace/Its semblance in another’s face.” There was no divine intervention or light from the sky: we both died alone, but, Cowper says, I died “beneath a rougher sea”.
This is possibly the most depressing poem I’ve read in the whole four years of me reading the first volume of the NAEL and I’m sorry to end this on such a downer note. I still have some popular ballads to read, but as far as I remember, they are mostly about tragic deaths as well.
This is the excerpt in which Cowper tries to convince me that long winter evenings are really great and he even succeeds a little bit. The excerpt is anthologized under the title “The Winter Evening: A Brown Study”. It starts with an apostrophe to the evening, depicted as a kind of goddess “with matron-steps slow moving”, and followed by the night, treading on her train, putting birds and animals to sleep with one hand and people with the other. The evening is the more beautiful of the two and so she doesn’t need many twinkling ornaments like the night, just a few stars and the moon, which, although in the evening does not shine as brightly, is larger. The hours of the evening are spent by the poet in writing, reading, music, weaving nets for birds or helping ladies with their work by rolling yarn. The rooms are now ablaze with hearth fires, multiplied by the mirrors so large that Goliath himself might have a look at his reflection without stooping. But what the poet likes best is to gaze in the fire and fantasize, or think about nothing at all in particular. He owns that freely and is not ashamed of admitting that to those who can’t stop thinking for a minute. (I must admit I am one of such people. Whenever I see people on the train or in the waiting room doing nothing at all, I can’t imagine how they can do it for a second.) So he likes to stare at the shape-shifting cinders or the pieces of soot caught on the grate of the fireplace, which were called “strangers” because there was a superstition they mean an unexpected visitor. Meanwhile his face, he adds, perhaps with a touch of sly humour, looks like the face of somebody who is thinking really hard about something. But then he is awakened from his reverie by a gust of wind hitting the shutters.
He muses pleasantly about the difference between the warm room and the cold weather outside. He reminisces about the landscape he saw today: the faded green of meadows, the newly-plowed brown fields, the fallows where animals graze and the leafless dark woods on the horizon, merging with the approaching night. Tomorrow it will all change, because even now as he is writing, even though nobody inside can see that, the snow is falling slowly, covering the blades of grass and protecting them from frost.
This is a nice excerpt, clearly foreshadowing Romantic poetry, with its focus on the inner life of the mind, fuelled by the scenes the author saw during the day. Its language reflects the peace of the evening and the enjoyment the author feels because of being inside a warm home made me think, strangely enough, about some of Tolkien’s descriptions of creature comforts his creatures enjoy.