Friday, February 21, 2014

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

The Unquiet Grave
— Anonymous

“The wind doth blow today, my love,         
    And a few small drops of rain;         
I never had but one true-love,         
    In cold grave she was lain.         

“I’ll do as much for my true-love
    As any young man may;         
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave         
    For a twelvemonth and a day.”

The twelvemonth and a day being up,         
    The dead began to speak:            
“Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
    And will not let me sleep?”

“’Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,         
    And will not let you sleep;         
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
    And that is all I seek.”

“You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,         
    But my breath smells earthy strong;         
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,         
    Your time will not be long.

“’Tis down in yonder garden green,         
    Love, where we used to walk,         
The finest flower that ere was seen         
    Is withered to a stalk.         

“The stalk is withered dry, my love,
    So will our hearts decay;         
So make yourself content, my love,      
    Till God calls you away.”

Those of you who realise I was widowed nearly 18 months ago might think these words have a particular, poignant meaning for me at this time; and indeed it could function as good advice to myself just now. Also you might take it as giving new meaning to my series title, 'The Living Dead'! But in truth I've always loved this old ballad, ever since I first encountered it in one of my English Literature textbooks when I was 17. Wikipedia, which describes it as an English folk song, tells us, ' It is thought to date from 1400 and was collected in 1868 by Francis James Child, as Child Ballad number 78', and adds that there are many variants of it. I further learn from Wikipedia that 

'The Child Ballads are a collection of 305 traditional ballads from England and Scotland and theirAmerican variants, collected by Francis James Child during the second half of the 19th century. Their lyrics and Child's studies of them were published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, a work of 2,500 pages. The tunes of most of the ballads were collected and published by Bertrand Harris Bronson in and around the 1960s.'

You can find the ten variants Child collected at this link. The one I've posted above appears first. For a long time it was the only one I was aware of. A number of contemporary singers who have embraced this song have tended to prefer versions with prettier and/or more dramatic words, e.g. Joan Baez, heard here on YouTube.  To me the incomparable Baez can do little wrong, and the words she has chosen suit her style and presentation beautifully — nevertheless I still love the words I've shared here best of all. 

I love them because they are plain and matter-of-fact (despite the subject) — almost salty in their earthiness.  First a quiet observation about the weather, just the way you might chat to the dear 

dead whom you're reluctant to let go of, then the bald explanation, all the more poignant (I think) for its lack of detail or drama. And I like the straight talking of the dead love — 'my breath smells earthy strong', almost humorous there for a minute, before moving into the sober warning that this fixation is unhealthy. The speaker leads gently, through the example of the flowers, to the final message, which is perhaps not a huge comfort but is realistic and practical.

This ordinary, unvarnished language grounds the poem for me. It's about real people in a real situation, to which I could relate long before I had the personal experience. I think that's why it so captured my imagination when I first encountered it and stayed with me ever since. Well, OK, it's a heightened version of reality, with the dead literally speaking. In that way it's dramatised — however is only a small remove from conversing with our dead in our heads.

How different this is from the sumptuous language of Flecker in my previous 'Living Dead' post. Aren't we lucky, as poets, that we have so many ways of using language to create the effects we're after — and as readers, to be able to appreciate such rich variety!


  1. Yes, we are lucky to have such variety. This poem is as earthy and beautiful as you say, it surprised me. I expected something more Marvell-ish and less touching from the opening. And I feel lucky to have you as a guide. Thank you.

    1. Hmm, Marvell is wonderful in a different way. (Must put him on my list.)

  2. Beautiful poem share, Rosemary. I like the 'real' language in the poem too, the feelings expressed in a real and understandable way. I can feel the sadness in the poem...and the love. And yes, we are fortunate as poets and readers of poetry to have SO much variety to read and enjoy.

    1. Thanks, Mary. Not unlike your own direct yet profound poetic language.

  3. Fantastic, Rosemary. I, too, love the simplicity - the plain unvarnished truth, as our forebears were accustomed to speaking. I love your Friday offerings, my friend - always something new and wonderful to contemplate. Thank you.

  4. A warm, gentle, informative post. Thank you.

    1. You're welcome,. It's a pleasure to share things I love.

  5. Rosemary, just to let you know that i enjoyed reading this post. A lot of effort and research must have gone into writing this article.

    Thanks for sharing the poem. And to think that it's centuries old. :)

  6. Beautiful lines, full of love and warm feelings. I wish i can write this good. Awsome

    1. Ah well, we learn by doing. And sometimes, reading others can show us how to go about it. :)


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