Sir Patrick Spens Summary, Analysis and Questions
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“).
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.
The eighth stanza is a tragic climax of the ballad. There is a lot of prompt action condensed in this stanza. The Scottish nobles come aboard the ship to be transported back to Scotland. At the beginning of this stanza, we witness the Scottish noblemen come aboard the ship, at the end we can see their hats floating in the sea. The narrator emphasized the irony of the situation. The nobles “wer richt laith/ to weet their cork-heild schoone“ (they did not want to wet their shoes) when they went aboard. Unfortunately, they were all wet (and drowned) before long. The interests of the nobles (not to wet and spoil their expensive shoes, which are signs of wealth and abundance) are presented as petty in comparison with the actions of Sir Patrick Spens. They are noble due to their origin and wealth, however, Sir Patrick Spens is noble because of his brave deeds. The tragedy (the shipwreck) is described as a “play“ of nature, which has no mercy with anybody. At the end of the storm, nothing remained but the floating hats, which represent the dead bodies of the crew. Moreover, they represent the bodies of the dead passengers, whose wealth could not avert their tragic fate. The reader can feel a strong sense of vanity in this part of the ballad. The author attempts to express that there are limits of worldly wealth.
The ninth and tenth stanzas are both introduced by the same weepy line: “O lang, lang, may the ladies stand“. These lines confirm the tragedy and its irreversibility. The ladies will never see Sir Patrick Spens and their lords alive. There are detailed hints at material wealth and worldliness of the noble ladies (“their fans“, “their gold kerns in their hair“). Generally, the ladies are displayed with irony. Their fussy and gentle representation stands in contrast with hardships at sea, which their lords, sailors, and Sir Patrick Spens had to face. Moreover, their husbands do not belong to them, they belong to death and sea. The ladies want to see their husbands, however, they will never see them again.
Ironically, the last stanza ends with a picture of Sir Patrick Spens, his “good“ ship and the Scots lying “fifty fadom deip“ at the bottom of the sea. The irony of the noblemen’s social status is underlined with the position of their bodies: “And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spens,/Wi’ the Scots lords at his feit.“ In the end, Sir Patrick Spens is at a higher rank in society than the nobles. The worldly wealth of the lords is no more significant and bravery and skills set Sir Patrick Spens above the lords. Thus, the author sets a moral about the limits of material wealth and worldly establishment.
Sir Patrick Spens together with his sailors is presented as a hero. He is presented as a humble man, who is forced to face his fate by external circumstances. He struggles against severe natural elements and he is also a victim of his king’s orders. His bravery and courage lie in his acceptance of his king’s biddings. Sir Patrick Spens accepts his fate from the very beginning of the ballad. Moreover, he commands his subordinate sailors to follow the same life story. I dare to assert that his life and deeds and the lives of his sailors are presented as a sacrifice. They sacrifice their lives to their king.
There are several levels of loyalty in the ballad, which are presented in the characters of the king, Sir Patrick Spens, his sailors, and other people. Moreover, loyalty is strongly perceived as obedience to someone with a higher social status. It is presented as a must; people with lower social status obey those with higher position in society. The ballad reflects feudal system and its hierarchy of the Medieval Times. Sir Patrick Spens, the king’s subject, does his king’s biddings and his sailors do the same to Sir Patrick Spens. All of them are loyal servants, who do not dare to disobey their master’s requests. The requests are presented as unreasonable and absurd. Nevertheless, none of the characters questions their legitimacy and none of them tries to avoid their fate.
The captain is a fatalistic character. He knows from the beginning that he is doomed to lay down his life and it is remarkable that he transfers his fate to his sailors and causes their perishing as well. The suffering is collective. All the characters encounter loss and death. The king loses his best sailor and his hope of bringing the queen back to his lands.
The ballad Sir Patrick Spens uses 4-3-4-3 metric. There are no other variants of Sir Patrick Spens and all lines have the same rhythm and rhyme scheme.
The first and third verse of each stanza, have four accents, while the second and fourth verse have three accents. Their accents form a rhythm that is iambic and ballads have musicality when reading, indicating that they were sung during the performance.
We can also say that in this ballad is used much alliteration, i.e. repeating the same consonant at the beginning of some consecutive words:
For I brought as much white money
As will gane my men and me.
In the ninth and tenth stanza is used repetition, repeating the same word:
1. They hadna been a week, a week,
In Noroway but twae,
2. “Ye lie, ye lie, ye liars loud!
Sae loud’s I hear ye lie.
QUESTIONS OF SIR PATRIC SPENS
1. In what point of view is the poem written? Who is the narrator?
Answer: The poem is written in the third-person, limited omniscient point of view. The narrator is an unnamed third person who is observing the events and dialogue presented.
2. In the fifth stanza, Sir Patrick Spens is moved to tears as he reads a letter requesting his help. What causes this display of emotion?
Answer: Sir Patrick Spens realizes he must help the King of Norway rescue his daughter, as he is a man of honor and duty. However, he regrets he must leave at that time, as the sea is at its most difficult, and he knows he may not survive.
3. What modern-day saying does the line “Be it wind, be it weet, be it hail, be it sleet, Our ship must sail the faem” sound like?
Answers may vary. Example: The United States Postal Service unofficially adopted a similar slogan, “Be it wind, rain, sleet or snow, the mail will be delivered.”
4. What happens to the ship in section II?
Answer: The ship encounters a fierce storm and is sunk.
5. At the end of the poem, Sir Patrick Spens is said to be laying fifty-fathoms deep. What is he doing there?
Answer: On his way home, Sir Patrick Spens and his sailors are overtaken by a powerful storm and drown. Many will wait for the sailors’ return for a long time, never knowing that they rest at the bottom of the ocean. Sir Patrick Spens has died in the shipwreck, and so his body is at the bottom of the ocean.
6. A ballad generally consists of quatrains with the following metrical scheme: the first and third lines have four accented syllables, while the second and fourth have three accented syllables. What is the metrical scheme of this poem? Does it fit the standard form of the ballad?
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.