Anon is, with considerable justification, the most famous of them all. But many names cling to anonymous coat-tails.
Besides, some of the best bits of literature find their way to us through anthologies, and many of us learned to like poetry that way. I had Walter de la Mare’s Come Hither (first published in 1923) and the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children, edited by Edward Blishen. Young readers aren’t fussy about who wrote what. They just lap up the story, the juiciest bits of language and (if there are any) the illustrations.
The ballad of Sir Patrick Spens existed long before anyone wrote it down but I first met it in Come Hither, and so, without knowing it, I was reading the earliest collected version, or more or less (de la Mare has modified the spelling slightly). De la Mare selected the version that first popped up in 1765 in volume 1 of the Reliques assembled by Thomas Percy, chaplain to George III and later Bishop of Dromore in County Down. Percy said his text was ‘given from two MS copies transmitted from Scotland’. The provenance of the manuscripts to which he refers is lost in history.
However, de la Mare in his notes (which I would certainly not have read in my tender years) says he has chosen this one (he doesn’t say it is Percy’s, but it is) in preference to Walter Scott’s ‘better known’ version collected in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders (1802). Why? He implies that Scott tampered: ‘The longer version of the ballad into which the genius of Sir Walter Scott wove a few new stanzas is the better known. But his was perilous work. Indeed, the secret of the art of this naked and lovely poetry seems nowadays to be lost: the marvel is how much it tells by means of the little it says.’ He goes on to quote five variants of one stanza just to show how unreliable any concept of the ‘original’ might be.
The celebrated American collector, Francis Child, between 1882 and 1898 published five volumes of English and Scottish Ballads and has much of interest to say about the background to Sir Patrick Spens in volume III. He discusses, for example, the historical events to which the ballad may refer, when in 1281
‘Margaret, the daughter of Alexander III, was . . . betrothed to Eric, prince of Norway. The bride was conducted to her husband by a splendid convoy of knights and nobles, and in the month of August was crowned queen. In returning from the celebration of the nuptials, many of the Scottish escort were lost at sea, and among those who perished was Sir Patrick Spence, we are to suppose.
It is in conformity with this view of the origin of the ballad, (the suggestion of Motherwell,) that in Buchan's version the object of the voyage is said to be to take the king's daughter, now ‘a chosen queen’, to Norway. In Scott's edition, on the other hand, Sir Patrick is deputed to bring home the king of Norway's daughter.
To explain this circumstance in the story, Sir Walter is forced to suppose that an unsuccessful and unrecorded embassy was sent, when the death of Alexander III had left the Scottish throne vacant, to bring the only daughter of Eric and Margaret, styled by historians the Maid of Norway, to the kingdom of which, after her grandfather's demise, she became the heir.
That such an embassy, attended with so disastrous consequences to the distinguished persons who would compose it, should be entirely unnoticed by the chroniclers is, to say the least, exceedingly improbable.’
So much for Scott’s creative role, then, which Child clearly seems to see as more than proper interference. But there’s more. Child goes on to discuss another entertaining possibility:
‘Then, ‘an ingenious friend’ having remarked to Percy that some of the phrases of 'Hardyknute' [in the Reliques 'Hardyknute' is ascribed to Elizabeth, Lady Wardlaw] seemed to have been borrowed from ‘Sir Patrick Spence’ and other old Scottish songs, this observation, combined with the fact that the localities of Dunfermline and Aberdour are in the neighborhood of Sir Henry Wardlaw's estate, leads to a conjecture that Lady Wardlaw may have been the author of ‘Sir Patrick Spence,’ as she is known to have been of ‘Hardyknute’.
It could never be deemed fair to argue from those resemblances which give plausibility to a counterfeit to the spuriousness of the original, but in fact there is no resemblance in the two pieces. ‘Hardyknute’ is recognized at once by an ordinary critic to be a modern production, and is, notwithstanding the praise it has received, a tame and tiresome one besides.
‘Sir Patrick Spence’, on the other hand, if not ancient, has been always accepted as such by the most skilful judges, and is a solitary instance of a successful imitation, in manner and spirit, of the best specimens of authentic minstrelsy.’
‘Tame and tiresome’ - poor Lady Wardlaw! If Sir Patrick was an imitation it was written by someone much better at fabricating the ancient style apparently.
Who was the original perpetrator of The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, then? And does it matter? The glory of collecting the old poems was extremely attractive. Bishop Percy, in the 1760s was not alone in being engrossed by the old ballads. He had hit a rich seam and it made him famous. His Reliques were celebrated across Europe where an interest in old songs and lyrics was spreading like wildfire, dramatically influencing contemporary poets (the influence is with us yet). There was something raw about the ballads, a sense of going back to the source.
But where anon is concerned, a particular kind of artistic license can easily creep in. One is only charged with plagiarism where there is a known author to plagiarise. As the ballads were collected, they were manipulated to a lesser (sometimes just the spelling) or greater degree.
In some cases, complete spoofs seem to have been accomplished. For example, the Scottish poet James Macpherson claimed to have been doing something similar to Percy. He was going about collecting bits of ancient verse and making them respectable. He could read and understand the ancient Gaelic and it was to his advantage that few scholars could do the same. In 1760 he published Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language. But this was nothing to his ‘discovery’ in 1761 of an epic about the Irish hero ‘Fingal’, an alleged translation from original writings by Ossian or Oisín, son of Finn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, (Finn McCool), a mythical figure from Irish, Scots and Manx mythology. This officially became Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language.
Today it is generally agreed that Fingal’s ancient epic poem owes more to Macpherson than any other writer, though most are not as rude about Macpherson as Samuel Johnson who said he was ‘a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud, and that the poems were forgeries’. At the time, though, people across Europe adored the idea of this ancient epic, lost in the mirk and mists of time and now resurrected for their benefit. Napoleon Bonaparte loved Ossian. The work was translated into French, German, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Polish, Czech and Hungarian. Without Ossian, Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave would not have existed. It raised Scotland’s international status in such a way that Braveheart pales into insignificance.
But back to Sir Patrick Spens which, in a small way, may be equally suspect. I don’t care. I liked it from the start. Even at the age of eight (children are far less daunted by such things than adults) I liked the weird spelling. I liked the fact that the wine was ‘blude-reid’ (it may be a cliché but it also foreshadows the doom of Sir P, and the Scots spelling is delicious). I liked the ballad even more when, as an adult, I moved to Fife and learned that Dunfermline was the ancient seat of kings, and that the silver sands beach at Aberdour was one of the loveliest on the east coast. It is the sand on which I visualise Sir Patrick walking and worrying about his disastrous mission.
Because of this, I can’t choose Walter Scott’s version, which has Sir P’s ship founder forty miles off Aberdeen (though this is more likely, given the facts of history and geography). Anyway, the Spens family is a Fife family. Their descendants still live there and I met a lady on the train who told me (and I believed her) that she was married to a direct descendant of Sir Patrick Spens whose ship sank on the return journey to Aberdour.
There is so much more that could be said, including some comment on the versions with mermaids (I am very tempted by the mermaid but will resist). Walter de la Mare was right: where ballads are concerned, ‘the marvel is how much it tells by means of the little it says.’ And for this reason, and for the moment, I’ll end with a version of The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens that is somewhere between Percy and de la Mare. Whoever wrote it, wherever and whenever, it is a fact that when I reach the end, my eyes fill up.
The king sits in Dumferling toune,
...Drinking the blude-reid wine:
‘O whar will I get guid sailor,
...To sail this schip of mine?’
Up and spak an eldern knicht,
...Sat at the king’s richt kne;
‘Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor,
...That sails upon the se.’
The king has written a braid letter,
...And signed 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 wha 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 haste, 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
...Cum 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.
Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
...It's fiftie fadom deip:
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence,
...Wi the Scots lords at his feit.