“Lord Randal” by Anonymous (13th–15th centuries)

hae – have
weary – tired
fain – happily
wald – would
gat – ate
gat ye – you eat
bloodhounds –dogs


The poem is a traditional ballad, a folk narrative poem which was very popular in the late Middle Ages and was originally adapted for singing and dancing. The text, which was taken from a small manuscript volume written in or about 1710 and published in the anthology ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Frances James Child in 1882’.

The well-known ballad ‘Lord Randal’ by Anonymous recounts a traditional tale of Lord Randal who went to the forest for hunting with a hawk and dogs. There he met his sweetheart who gave him eels fried in dish. Ruler Randal ate it and give the left to hawk and dogs. Since the fish was poisoned, they all died.

This ballad tells about some significant features of the prevalent customs and habits at the time. For instance, hunting was a means for living and hawks and dogs were helping the seeker to locate the prey. The absence of a horse and the way that he goes by walking is a clue to the fact that this is a very old ballad. Then again, the forest areas portrayed as a mysterious and enchantment place carries the poem as back as to Celtic tradition.

Young Lord Randal returns at home after a long hunting day in the greenwood where he met his “true-love”. He is tired and he would lie down. Lord Randal’s mother asks what she gave him to eat and why he is not accompanied by his dogs and hawks. He answers that she gave him eels fried in a pan and his dogs died after having the leftovers. Therefore he is going to die. He will leave twenty-four cows to his mother, gold, and silver to his sister, houses, and lands to his brother, hell and fire to his lover.
All that is told through questions and answers that is in the dialogue form.

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The ballad is made out of ten stanzas of 4 lines. Every one of the initial six stanzas contains a shift of data and sound: the first and third lines of every stanza contribute information to the plot while the second and forward stanzas give the sound example through repetition. The third line of every one of the initial six stanzas contains a
key-word, respectively: greenwood, true-love, eels fried, hawks and hounds, they died, poisoned.

The climax, or defining moment, of the story, lies in the 6th stanza when Lord Randal understands he has been poisoned and this influences the tone of the exchange between the primary character and his mother in the last four stanzas of the poem. What’s more, truth be told, in the last four stanzas Lord Randal, who is dying, makes his oral testament and this is the typical feature of the ballad. The testament made by the dying individual isn’t composed, but oral.

The rhyme plan is normal and in all quatrains it is ABAC. Since this is a song which was initially sung to a straightforward instrumental backup, the rhyme scheme was critical to give more musicality to the composition. Its consistency helped the audience members to learn it brisk and in this way center around the plot development.

The poem was handed over orally from generation to generation. Therefore the language is organized accordingly keeping in mind the need to be memorized. The language is direct and straightforward and makes considerable use of repetition especially in refrain. Alliteration is a recurrent device which helps memorability, produces musicality and emphasises relevant details. In other words, the language is simple and repetitive both as for word choice and word order(monosyllabic words, co-ordination preposition). It shows a clear frequency of words of Anglo-Saxon origin and stick phrases, like the use of “true-love”-lover. Characterization is reduced to the minimum and just sketched.
The text gives us a lot of information about the culture of the time. First of all the ballad describes an aristocratic lifestyle: for example, they had a good time… they hunted all day. “I’m wearing wi’ hunting and fain wad lie down”. The role of man/woman and their relationship are represented by the third lines of each stanza “mother, make my bed soon, …”. As a matter of fact, men ordered something and women were expected to carry it out immediately; the woman was kind to her son, but he was rather rude. The mother cared about heredity more than this son “what d’ye leave to your mother, Lord Randal, my son?”, “What d’ye leave to your sister, Lord Randal, my son?”, “What d’ye leave to your brother, Lord Randal, my son?”, “What d’ye leave to your true-love, Lord Randal, my son?”.

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After reading the poem, the reader can understand the first son owed all the family possessions and so the mother is worried about his eventual death: during this kind of civilization, animals were generally left to mothers, gold and silver to sisters, houses and lands to eventual brothers. And last but not least, the narrator underlines the metaphorical sense of poisoning. As a matter of fact, Lord Randal was not really poisoned by his lover. Only his love for her would conceive of as a form of death.

Questions For further Understanding

1. How did we come to have ballads as part of our literary history?

As stated in this poem’s introduction, before ballads were written down, they were passed down from person to person through oral tradition. This explains how versions of ballads often slightly differ, as they often changed from speaker to speaker.

2. Who is the speaker of the poem?

The poem’s speaker is the mother of Lord Randall.

3. What key events of Lord Randal’s life are recalled in each stanza of the poem?

The first stanza recalls Lord Randal’s hunting as a young boy. The second and third stanzas recall his evening date with his love. The fourth stanza recalls the death of Lord Randall’s dogs, while the last stanza recalls his own death.

4. This ballad repeats several phrases in each stanza, including “…mother make my bed soon,/For I am weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.” By repeating these lines, as well as other phrases, what literary device is being used?

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This ballad is using anaphora.

5. What is Lord Randal hunting throughout the poem?

The poem infers that Lord Randal has been hunting, or courting, his love.

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