Ed de Moel

Child Ballads - Narrative

Sweet William's Ghost

  1. 'Sweet William's Ghost,' Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany, "4th volume, 1740;" here from the London edition of 1763, p. 324. Version A
  2. Herd's Manuscripts, I, 177, II, 49, stanzas 27 ff. Version B
  3. 'Marjorie and William,' Motherwell's Manuscript, p. 262, 'William and Marjorie,' Motherwell's Minstrelsy, p. 186. Version C
  4. Dr. Joseph Robertson's Note-Book, Adversaria,' p. 86. Version D
  5. 'Sweet William and May Margaret,' Kinloch's Ancient Scottish Ballads, p. 241. Version E
  6. Jamieson's Popular Ballads, I, 83, stanzas 26 ff. Version F
  7. Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, III, 183, ed. 1833. Version G

Ramsay's copy, A, was reprinted by Percy, Reliques, 1765, III, 128, and by Herd, 1769, p. 194, 1776, I, 76. Percy remarks that the concluding stanza seems modern. There can be no doubt that both that and the one before it are modern; but, to the extent of Margaret's dying on her lover's grave, they are very likely to represent original verses not remembered in form. B constitutes, in Herd's Manuscripts, and F, in Jamieson's Popular Ballads, the termination of a copy of 'Clerk Saunders.' Scott appended the three stanzas given as G to the later edition of his rifacimento of the copies of 'Clerk Saunders' in Herd's Manuscripts, and says of them: "I am informed by the reciter that it was usual to separate from the rest that part of the ballad which follows the death of the lovers, as belonging to another story." The first part of F was evidently derived from 'Proud Lady Margaret,' No. 47.

Motherwell notes, Minstrelsy, p. lxiii, 6, that in recited copies he had heard this stanza repeated, "which does not occur in printed copies" (and can easily be spared), after A 14.[foot-note]

  My meikle tae is my gavil-post,
My nose is my roof-tree,
My ribs are kebars to my house,
And there is nae room for thee.

The story of this ballad seems to have become disordered in most of the versions. A alone, the first published, has perhaps retained the original form. The principal idea is, however, preserved in all the full versions, A-E; the dead lover returns to ask back his unfulfilled troth-plight. His mistress, not knowing that he is dead, demands that he shall first come within her bower and kiss her, A, B, C. He answers that if he does this her days will not be long. She persists; he shall take her to kirk,[foot-note] and wed her with a ring, A, E. He then tells her distinctly that he is dead, and she returns to him his faith and troth. She streaks her troth on a long wand and gives it to him through a window, B. In A she stretches out her white hand, "to do her best;" in C "takes up" her white hand, and strikes him on the breast; in E takes her white hand and smooths it on his breast; all of which are possibly corruptions of the ceremony performed in B. In D she takes a silver key and strikes him three times on the breast. She follows the dead till he comes to his grave, A, B, C, D (?) F, which is wrongly said in A, E to be far beyond the sea. She asks if there is room for her in his grave, and is told there is not, A, F [there is room, B, D]. She dies at his grave, A; is told that her days will not be long, F; in G, goes weeping away.

Margaret will not give William back his faith and troth, in B, D, E, unless he resolves certain questions about the state of the dead; what becomes of women that die in travail; where the women go who hang themselves for sin; where unbaptized children. Mere curiosity does not sort well with this very seriously conceived ballad, and these passages have probably grown out of a not unnatural inquiry on the part of Margaret as to her lover's personal state, extended in E 12 to "tell me the pleasures o heaven, and pains o hell how they be." The scene at the grave in C 11-13 may be judged grotesque, but is not trivial or unimpressive. These verses may be supposed not to have belonged to the earliest form of the ballad, and one does not miss them from A, but they cannot be an accretion of modern date.

Sir Walter Scott informs us, in the Advertisement to The Pirate, that the lady whose affections had been engaged by Goff, the historical prototype of Cleveland, "went up to London to see him before his death, and that, arriving too late, she had the courage to request a sight of his body; and then touching the hand of the corpse, she formally resumed the troth-plight which she had bestowed." "Without going through this ceremony," Scott goes on to say, "she could not, according to the superstition of the country, have escaped a visit from the ghost of her departed lover, in the event of her bestowing upon any living suitor the faith which she had plighted to the dead."[foot-note]

'Sweet William's Ghost' has much in common with one of the most beautiful and celebrated of the Scandinavian ballads, and may well be a different development of the same story:

Danish. 'Fæstemanden i Graven' ('Aage og Else'), Grundtvig, No 90, II, 492-97, III, 870-74, A from a manuscript of the seventeenth century, B from about 1700, C from recent tradition. Swedish. 'Sorgens Magt,' A, B, Afzelius, No 6, I, 29, II, 204; C, Arwidsson, No 91, II, 103; D, Wigström, Skånska Visor, No 8, the same, Folkdiktning, I, 17, No 6, 'Den dode brudgummen:' all from recent tradition.

According to the oldest version, Danish A,[foot-note] from which the others do not materially vary, a man dies just as he is to be married. His love grieves for him passionately. The dead hears her under the ground, comes to her bower with his coffin on his back, and knocks. She lets him in after he has proved himself to be "a spirit of health" by uttering the name of Jesus, combs his hair, and asks him how it is under the black earth (cf. English, E 12). It is like the bliss of heaven. May she follow him into his grave? It is like blackest hell. Every time she weeps for him his coffin is filled with lappered blood. But when she sings and is happy, his grave is all hung with rose-leaves. The cock crows, the white, the red, the black; he takes up his coffin and goes wearily back to the graveyard. His love follows through the mirk wood (so Swedish A 9, cf. English B 11), to the churchyard, and into the church. Then his yellow hair falls away, his rosy color wans. He bids her go home and never weep for him more. "Look up at the sky, the night is going;" and as she looks he slips into his grave. She goes sadly home, prays God that she may not live out a year and a day, falls sick, and dies within a month.

The Scandinavian ballad agrees in many particulars with the conclusion of the second lay of Helgi Hundingsbani in the older Edda. Helgi, having been slain by Sigrún's brother, is bitterly be wailed by Sigrún. He quits his barrow to come to her. Sigrún will kiss him, but his hair is thick with hoar-frost, he is drenched in blood, and how is this? These are the grim tears that Sigrún has shed, every one of which falls on his breast. Sigrún says she will sleep in his arms as though he were alive, and goes into the barrow with him. The end of the story is lost; according to a prose tradition which professes to supply the close, Sigrún soon died of grief. The source of the later ballads is perceptible here.

In the English ballad the dead lover returns of his own motion, simply to ask back his troth; in the Scandinavian, his betrothed grieves him out of his grave, "hon sörjer sin fästeman ur graf,' and the object of his visit is to admonish her to restrain her tears, which prevent his happy repose. A fragmentary story with this turn, which perhaps may even have been a variety of 'Sweet William's Ghost,' will be found in the ballad which fol- lows this.

In a somewhat popular German ballad, 'Der todte Freier,' a dead man comes to the window of his betrothed in the night and calls her. She does not recognize him; says he smells of the ground. He has been eight years in the ground, and that may be. He bids her summon father, mother, and friends, for her bridegroom has come. She is decked as for her wedding; at the first sound of the bell makes her will or receives the sacrament, and dies at the second.[foot-note]

A young man goes to the grave of his betrothed and asks his love-tokens back; she refers him to her mother, and tells him she will join him in a year: Haupt u. Schmaler, I, 88, No 55. This returning of gifts by the dead is not an infrequent phenomenon: Čelakowský, I, 4, No 2 = Wenzig, Slawische Volkslieder, p. 57, and III, 16, No 6; Beaurepaire, p. 53, Le Héricher, Lit. pop. de Normandie, p. 160 f; Briz y Candi, I, 140, Milá, Observaciones, p. 155, No 50, Milá, Romancerillo, pp 320-22, No 337, D, E, A11, B11.

A is translated by Grundtvig, Engelske og skotske Folkeviser, p. 34, No 4; by Herder, Book III, No 8; Bodmer, II, 36; Wackernagel, Altdeutsche Blätter, I, 189; Döring, p. 391; Knortz, Lieder u. Romanzen Alt-Englands, p. 86, No 23; von Marées, p. 24. C by Grundtvig, p. 319, No 90; Wolff, Halle der Völker, I, 30, Hausschatz, p. 205; Knortz, as above, p. 179, No 49. A compound of D, C, A, by Rosa Warrens, Schottische Volkslieder, p. 53, No 12.

This page most recently updated on 22-Mar-2011, 16:45:27.
Return to main index