The Composition of "Sir Patrick Spence"
Piper, William Bowman, Philological Quarterly
The last lines of "Sir Patrick Spence" in the Percy version of this poem (1)--the whole of which I herewith produce--significantly reflect the first lines:
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, Sat at the kings richt kne: Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor, That sails upon the se. The king has written a braid letter, And signd it wi' his hand; And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence, Was walking on the sand. The first line that Sir Patrick red, A loud lauch lauched he: The next line that Sir Patrick red, The teir blinded his ee. O quha 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? Mak hast, mak haste, my mirry men all, Our guid schip sails the morne. O say na sae, my master deir, For I feir a deadlie storme. Late late yestreen I saw the new moone, Wi' the auld moone in hir arme; And I feir, I feir, my deir master, That we will cum to harme. 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. O lang, lang, may thair ladies sit Wi' thair fans into their hand, Or eir they se Sir Patrick Spence Cure sailing to the land. O lang, lang, may the ladies stand Wi' thair gold kems in their hair, Waiting for thair ain deir lords, For they'll se thame na mair. Have owre, have owre to Aberdour, It's fiftie fadom deip: And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence, Wi' the Scots lords at his feit.
In the first lines, the king sits with an old knight at his knee; in the last, Sir Patrick lies with the assembled Scots lords at his feet--a pattern of contrast that defines the difference between authority and nobility to which the whole poem is devoted. We may also notice that one of the two principal actors is named here, as he has been throughout the Percy version, and that the other, here as elsewhere, remains quite nameless, merely acknowledged as "the king."
The last stanza shares the weighty term "guid" with the first: "guid sailor;" "guid Sir Patrick Spence." This echo enforces the difference between the poern's protagonists, the king, whose irresponsible power dominates the first five stanzas, and Sir Patrick, whose heroic action determines the final six. To the king "guid" means merely servicable, useful: it is a term as appropriate to a tool as to a man. The old knight who describes Sir Patrick as "the best sailor," using the superlative of "guid," obviously accepts his ruler's sense. Sir Patrick will accept this understanding as well when he announces that "our guid schip sails the morne," applying it, however, to a tool. By the end of the poem, as a consequence of Sir Patrick's conduct, "guid" has acquired an obvious human, an obvious moral, value: noble, heroic. In the poem's first lines, the king--not "the guid king"--speaks of "this schip of mine" and asks about someone he can command to sail it while he himself sits drinking wine comfortably at home. In the last lines, "guid Sir Patrick Spence" holds silent, everlasting court on the floor of the transparent sea.
No other early publication of the poem printed or in manuscript--every one of which appeared after Percy's Reliques first introduced it--presents the last stanzas like Percy except for the inflated version in the Minstrelsy of Sir Walter Scott, (2) who knew and loved Percy's book all his adult life. In his MS, which dates from a few years after the Reliques, Motherwell, (3) while preserving Sir Patrick's relationship to the Scottish lords, reversed the order of the last stanzas and concluded his version of the ballad, not with the display on the floor of the sea, but with ladies waiting on shore. Another Motherwell version, which concludes, like Percy's, with the hero, reads: "And there lies good Sir Andrew Wood, / And a' the Scottish fleet." This change of name I will touch elsewhere. For now, I note only the absence of the lords and the consequent dilution of the protagonist's grandeur. Other early versions demote him in other ways. In some cases, Sir Patrick lies at the lords' feet; in one, in which the lords are forgotten, his men lie at Sir Patrick's feet. But no other version sufficiently distinguishes him.
Percy alone, then--except for Scott, who followed him--adequately emphasized the eminence of the hero, both getting the final tableau right and putting it where it belonged. He and David Dalrymple, who both supplied him with many of his Scottish materials and consulted with him about them, had an extended epistolary discussion of another Scottish ballad, "Edom O'Gordon." (4) Dalrymple, an active advocate of Scottish antiquities, had recently published a copy of this ballad and had added--or allowed--two extra stanzas that Percy eventually deleted (Reliques, 1:140-47). The Reliques' modern editor, Henry Wheatley, who often condemns Percy's changes, approves of this one: "Percy showed good taste in rejecting the termination given in Dalrymple's version" (Reliques, 1:142). The sensibility that cropped and thus refined the end of "Edom O'Gordon," we may suggest, also acted to clinch the conclusion of the more artful--the greater--poem.
David Herd devoted the last stanzas of "Sir Patrick Spence" in his published Songs not to the court ladies who congregated in Percy's version, (5) but to the hero's wife, not fingering fans and displaying combs, however, but sewing a seam and comforting her orphaned son--a very different effect, indeed, from Percy's. Scott added--or allowed--a set of maidens, who tore their hair, no doubt disarranging their golden combs. Other early versions of the poem end with survivors who are variously concerned with gloves, tears, and babies. Later versions also made additions to Percy's eleven stanzas. Scott has added fifteen new ones to render the poem, as he himself explained, "more complete" (Minstrelsy, 1:215). He describes in some detail both a successful visit to Norway and the unlucky voyage home, turning a tale of epic action into an item of dubious journalism. Some other versions of the poem inflate Percy's eleven stanzas to sixteen, some to as many as twenty-nine (Child, 2:17-32). These stanzas are loaded with bonny boys, floating mattresses, charges and counter charges of financial malfeasance, broken anchors, snapped masts, and mermaids. Need I report that, as a result of such inflation, the shapely, powerful poem that Percy printed has been blown completely out of shape?
The elements of "Sir Patrick Spence," as Percy printed it, are not only wonderfully terse, but strictly appropriate. Consider, for example, the satiric description of the lords who sailed with Sir Patrick and their ladies who waited at home for his return. Identifying the lords as "our Scots nobles"--not "our gude Scots lords," as Scott revised it (Minstrelsy, 1: 229)--is immediately patronizing, reductive. These lords, moreover, are not brave in facing the storm, but squeamish about getting what Hamlet might have called their "chopines" a little damp. And all that is left of them on the surface of the sea when the ship goes down is their hats, which swim above them. Nothing is mentioned of the lords themselves, neither feet nor heads, only the garments that adorned such parts--and, of course, the lords' foppish concern for these garments. The poem treats the ladies somewhat more politely: they do not have to be prepared to recline at Sir Patrick's feet; but they are well mocked all the same. Their hands' and hair's being named provides them some physical presence; but their hands flourish the fan, that epitome of flirtation, and their hair holds golden combs, so that they project attitudes of coquetry and vanity that ill become wives who are or should be possessed by anxiety and grief.
Consider on the contrary the description of the …
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Publication information: Article title: The Composition of "Sir Patrick Spence". Contributors: Piper, William Bowman - Author. Journal title: Philological Quarterly. Volume: 81. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2002. Page number: 469+. © 1998 University of Iowa. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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