Sir Patrick Spens by Anonymous

In Sir Patrick Spens are included several topics. The ballad treats more topics such as suffering, loss, loyalty, the conflict between conviction and obedience to authority, dangers at sea and death.

skipper – captain
faem – same
hame – home
fetch – return
alack – an exclamation denoting sorrow league – a distance of about 3.0 miles
lang – long

Introduction: Medieval ballads are generally anonymous; we don’t know who wrote them. They were probably originally an oral tradition and were eventually written down by various people in various places. Because they sprang from an oral tradition, there is a great deal of variation among them. The language is Middle English and often Scottish dialectic. While the modern reader can read them, there are many words that are not immediately easy to understand. They are invariably rhymed since rhyme makes it easier to remember something that is being recited from memory. Their subject matter is very diverse: comedy, tragedy, love, etc. They are generally down-to-earth in their subject matter and sentiments.

Sir Patrick Spens
There are three historical events which may have inspired this anonymous ballad and it generates a great deal of debate among scholars as to which of them is the real source. Scholars have not reached an agreement whether this poem was inspired by events of 1281, or 1290. What they agree upon is the fact that the original manuscript was transmitted from Scotland. The ballad was first printed in 1765 in Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry and it was reprinted many times.

Summary and Analysis of Sir Patrick Spens

The ballad depicts the King of Scotland, in residence at Dunfermline, who is wondering aloud where he can find a sailor worthy to voyage his ship. Sir Patrick Spens is suggested by an elderly knight, whose name we do not know. When Sir Patrick Spens receives the letter from the king, he is not only surprised, but he is frightened. It is wintertime and it is not very wise to sail at this time of year. The sailors are aware of the dangers, however, they are willing to do the King’s bidding. They are also superstitious and they believe it brings bad luck to set sail in this period of year. Against their instincts, Patrick Spens and his men set sail. Unfortunately, they fall prey to a storm and they all perish. They never return to their port again.

In the Child version, the poem has fourty-five lines, which are divided into simple four-line stanzas. The poem was intended to be sung or recited, therefore, the rhyming scheme ABCB reflects this attitude and oral nature of the work. The rhyming scheme is simple and only even-numbered lines are rhymed. The poem usually consists of one-syllable words, which deliver a dynamic and forceful reportage of events. The narrator employs a considerable amount of direct speech throughout the poem to enliven the story. Descriptions are clear and uncomplicated. The ballad is characteristic of rapid plot development. We find a lot of repetition and parallelism in the ballad. All the above-mentioned features generate a great deal of dramatical and emotional effect.

Sir Patrick Spens is a prime example of a narrative poem with a tragic ending. Sir Patrick Spens, a Scottish nobleman, is an excellent, skillful and brave sailor, who is loyal to his king and fulfills his duty even though he knows he will perish in the North Sea. The first stanza provides an introduction to the whole poem. The king sits on his throne and he is desperate for a skillful sailor, who would sail his ship. The king wants to find somebody (“O quhar will I get guid sailor“). At the same time he “sits“. This situation gives an impression that he is a static symbol of power. Other people, his subjects, are given orders to carry them out for him. The glass of red wine also puts emphasis on his power and, moreover, it represents an unfortunate and inevitable fate because the chalice of red wine may also function as a symbol of blood, doom, and death. Sir Patrick Spens does not have any options but to carry out the king’s wish.

The second stanza introduces an “elder“ knight, who claims that Sir Patrick Spens is “the best sailor/ That sails upon the sea.“ The knight is described as “elder“, which implies an idea that he is a respectable and powerful member of king’s court. Additionally, he sits at king’s right side and has the right to speak up (“Up and spak an eldern knicht“).

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In the next stanza, the king writes and sends a letter to Spens. It is emphasized that it is “signed wi’ his hand“ and thus it is a letter of command with a royal signature. Spens has to accept the order, he cannot be disobedient because he is the king’s subject.

When Spens starts reading the first lines of the letter, he laughs. There can be many reasons for his laughter and it does not have to be necessarily an indication of joy. He may laugh because someone praises his skills at sea. It is possible he considers the letter as a joke because he knows it would be foolishness to sail in winter. His laughter may also be a bitter sign of irony or even sarcasm. He laughs because he knows how ridiculous it is to sail at winter sea. This idea is confirmed in the next two lines. When he realizes the letter is not a joke but a cruel reality, he starts to weep. “The teir blinded his ee“.He has to accept his fate, which means he is doomed to die. He is aware of the dangers and fury of the sea in winter. He can clearly see his fatal future and therefore, his eyes are not “blinded“ (irony). He knows that he cannot escape death.

The fifth stanza is introduced with an exclamation: “O quhar is this has don this deid,/ This ill deid don to me“. Spens would like to know who wants to harm him. We do not receive an answer, although we may suspect some people from the king’s court, e. g. the elderly knight or the king himself. Another interpretation would be to understand the exclamation as a sign of despair and hopelessness, as a moment when Spens fully realizes his irrevocable fate. This stanza is finished by two lines in which Spens realizes the dangers of winter sea and ridiculousness and futility of the king’s order.

After reading the king’s letter in solitude on the beach, Sir Patrick Spens promptly orders his sailors to prepare for a voyage: “Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all“. Ironically, the sailors are anything but “merry“. In the last two lines of the sixth stanza, one sailor of the crew addresses Spens and reminds him of “a deadlie storme“. He addresses him as a master. He also knows that they will all die, however, he does not defy his master. Comparatively, there is the same hierarchy as between the king and Sir Patrick Spens. The sailor obeys the orders of Sir Patrick Spens in the same way Sir Patrick Spens obeys orders of his king. The poem illustrates the stratification of medieval society.

In the following stanza, a sailor continues his speech and he expresses his fear of the storm: “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 come to harme.“ The new moon in the old moon’s arms (the shape in the sky) is considered an ominous sign, a bad omen. The sailor expresses his worry about the situation.


Answers may vary, but students should be able to effectively analyze a quatrain of the poem in order to show how it successfully adheres to the ballad structure.

Sir Patrick Spens Summary, Analysis and Questions


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