The Composition of "Sir Patrick Spence"

By Piper, William Bowman | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

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.

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