Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

"The Unquiet Grave": A New Source for Joyce's "The Dead"

Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

"The Unquiet Grave": A New Source for Joyce's "The Dead"

Article excerpt

"The Unquiet Grave," which would have made a suggestive title for James Joyce's "The Dead" (1914), has eight variants in Francis Child's great collection, English and Scottish Popular Ballads. In most variants the dead lover, disturbed in his grave by the overwhelming grief of his mistress, is a young man. If we change the speaker in the best version from male to female, we get closer to Gretta Conroy's mournful memory:

   The wind doth blow today, my love,
   And a few small drops of rain;
   I never had but one true-love,
   In cold grave he was lain.

   I'll do as much for my true-love
   As any young woman may:
   I'll sit and mourn all at his grave
   For a twelvemonth and a day.

   The twelvemonth and a day being up,
   The dead began to speak:
   Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
   And will not let me sleep?

   'Tis I, my love, sits on your grave
   And will not let you sleep;
   For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
   And that is all I seek.

   You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
   But my breath smells earthy strong;
   If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
   Your time will not be long.

   'Tis down in yon garden green,
   Love, where we used to walk,
   The finest flower that ere was seen
   Is withered to a stalk.

   The stalk is withered dry, my love,
   So will our hearts decay;
   So make yourself content, my love,
   Till God calls you away.

   (The Oxford Book of Ballads, ed. James Kinsley, Oxford: Oxford UP,
   1989, 96-97.)

"The Unquiet Grave" includes every important theme in the dramatic climax of "The Dead": the cold winter rain that sent Gretta Conroy's consumptive true love, Michael Furey, to his cold grave; Gretta's mourning for the dead youth; her memory of the dead lover, who's still a vivid presence; the emotional and marital risks Gretta takes by disturbing his rest; the Edenic memories of where they used to walk in summer; the young Michael's death in winter; and Gretta's poignant "heart's decay."

Two other ballads mentioned in Joyce's story have the same tragic tone as "The Unquiet Grave" and also foreshadow the themes of "The Dead." Mr. Grace recites the folk ballad, "The Grief of a Girl's Heart," in which the desolate girl cries: "You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me, you have taken what is before me and what is behind me; you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me. …

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