Episode 22

The Unquiet Grave 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses the anonymous ballad, ‘The Unquiet Grave’.

Poet

Anonymous

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

The Unquiet Grave

Anonymous

‘Cold blows the wind to my true love,
And gently drops the rain,
I never had but one sweetheart,
And in greenwood she lies slain.

‘I’ll do as much for my sweetheart
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all on her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.’

When the twelvemonth and one day was past,
The ghost began to speak:
‘Why sittest thou here all day on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?’

‘There’s one thing that I want, sweetheart,
There’s one thing that I crave;
And that is a kiss from your lily-white lips –
Then I’ll go from your grave.’

‘My breast it is as cold as clay,
My breath smells earthly strong;
And if you kiss my cold clay lips,
Your days they won’t be long.

‘Go fetch me water from the desert,
And blood from out of a stone;
Go fetch me milk from a fair maid’s breast
That a young man never had known.’

‘O down in yonder grove, sweetheart,
Where you and I would walk,
The first flower that ever I saw
Is withered to a stalk.

‘The stalk is wither’d and dry, sweetheart,
And the flower will never return;
And since I lost my own sweetheart,
What can I do but mourn?

‘When shall we meet again, sweetheart?
When shall we meet again?’
‘When the oaken leaves that fall from the trees
Are green and spring up again,
Are green and spring up again.’

 


Podcast transcript

In a couple of previous episodes of this podcast I have referred to ballads and ballad metre – when we looked at ‘The Jumblies’ by Edward Lear, and ‘The Oxen’ by Thomas Hardy. I could also have mentioned it in the Emily Dickinson episode about ‘It sifts from Leaden Sieves’, but I restrained myself.

And so I thought it was about time we took a look at a traditional ballad, and I chose ‘The Unquiet Grave’ because it’s one of my absolute favourites. It’s a devastating, heartbreaking poem with a doorway onto the supernatural, and even the mystical – so what could be better than that?

But before I go into the excellencies of this particular ballad, I’ll say something about the characteristics of traditional ballads in general, because in several ways they go against our fundamental assumptions about what poetry is and what poems are.

So these days, we tend to think of poems as being written, rather than spoken, or – perish the thought, sung – by a single author in a form where there is a fixed text and where the poet is striving to be original, striving to be different, innovative and distinctive. And yet none of these things are true of traditional ballads.

Ballads originated in a rich oral tradition, going back hundreds of years, or maybe even thousands, depending on what criteria we use. If we adopt a fairly loose definition of a ballad as an oral poem that tells a story, then we can trace this kind of poetry all the way back to Homer and Gilgamesh and beyond, into ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’, as Shakespeare puts it, before writing was invented and poems were written down.

This means they would have been spoken aloud, and/or set to music and sung, and many of the original poets or singers, as well as their audiences, would have been illiterate. So of course, they weren’t writers, they were composers who carried their work in their memory.

And whoever composed the first version of a ballad certainly did not have the last word, because they were were passed on from singer to singer, poet to poet, from generation to generation, until they became public property. So people would feel free to elaborate on them, adding bits or cutting them out or changing lines, when the mood took them or if it felt like the right thing to do for a particular audience.

They were a bit like jokes – you know, jokes are passed around from person to person and everyone tells the joke slightly differently, so the wording will never be the same twice, but it’s still the same joke. Until it’s not, because over time all kinds of different versions and variations of jokes appear. So jokes and ballads are a bit like viruses, the good ones survive, but they adapt to different circumstances, and you end up with different variants. So by the time people started collecting traditional ballads and writing them down and printing them, in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were often recorded in several different versions.

Another way that ballads are different from modern poems is that as I said, back in episode 18, about Emily Dickinson, these days the dominant mode of modern poetry is the lyric, which is typically a personal, reflective, short, poem, which on some level is designed to advertise what a special and sensitive character the poet is, to have such intense and original thoughts and feelings.

And I contrasted this with epic and dramatic poetry which are typically longer and more impersonal and focus on telling stories. And the ballad is a vehicle for a story, which makes it a distant cousin of the epic. Maybe we could characterise it as a mini epic.

And I want to emphasise this point about originality. If you are a poet or singer working in the oral tradition, you are not trying to draw attention to your own artistry, because you don’t necessarily want the cleverest phrase or image, you want the phrase or image that will connect most strongly with a live audience – if they have to stop and think about it, then you interrupt the flow of the story and break the spell of the poem.

What this means in practice is that in narrative oral poetry we encounter a lot of repeated epithets, stock phrases that would be dismissed as cliches in modern poetry. But like I say, the balladeer isn’t trying to be avant garde, and the familiar phrase is actually a good phrase to use, because its a tried and tested, and does the job.

So famously in Homer, there are a lot of repeated phrases, such as ‘the wine-dark sea,’ ‘swift-footed Achilles’, and ‘rosy-fingered dawn’. And similarly in the world of ballads we encounter a lot of stock phrases, a lot of ‘milk-white steeds’ and maidens with ‘nut-brown hair’ and so on. And ‘The Unquiet Grave’ is no exception, with the conventional description of the sweetheart’s ‘lily-white lips’ and ‘breast as cold as clay’, and the lover weeping on the grave ‘for a twelvemonth and a day’.

So that’s the traditional ballad, which can be traced back in English poetry to the Middle Ages. There is also such a thing as a literary ballad, which is a more modern development, when more literary-minded and egotistical poets write ballads for publication. And these try to blend the spirit of the traditional ballad with a more original, consciously crafted style. The poster boy for this, of course, is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and his masterpiece The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – which I guess we should do at some point on this podcast. Something for us to look forward to…

OK so that is the tradition in which ‘The Unquiet Grave’ takes its place. And as you would therefore expect, there are several different versions of the ballad. In the 19th century Francis James Child compiled a famous collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and ‘The Unquiet Grave’ is included as ballad number 78. Child included four different versions of it, but even these are not definitive. The version I’m reading today is from a collection published by Cecil Sharp in 1916, One Hundred English Folksongs, and if you like this is the extended remix version. Because all of the Child Ballad versions finish at the end of the fifth verse, when the dead woman says ‘And if you kiss my cold clay lips, / Your days they won’t be long’ – which is pretty brutal and abrupt and heartbreaking in its own right, but to me the longer version is even better.

And it doesn’t just end with different versions of the text, because if you search for ‘The Unquiet Grave’ on Spotify, or the YouTube or your music database of choice, then you will come across scores of different versions, with different words and different singers and different tunes sung and accompanied in all kinds of different musical styles.

And this is part of the delight and part of the fun of the ballad. On the one hand, you might start to feel a bit anxious and think, ‘Goodness, there’s all these different versions for just one ballad! How am I ever going to get to the bottom of it?’. And of course you never will. But whenever you read a ballad or listen to it or sing it, you find yourself in the swim of a great tradition, which personally I find magical and exhilarating.

So let’s have a closer look at this particular ballad, ‘The Unquiet Grave’.

It starts with a scene familiar in many poems and many songs, the lover lamenting the death of his beloved:

‘Cold blows the wind to my true love,
And gently drops the rain,
I never had but one sweetheart,
And in greenwood she lies slain.

Isn’t that just terrific? It’s so plain. And so basic and so obvious. And to our jaded ears, so cliched. But it just rings so true. There’s a purity about it, and a plangency that gets me every time. I think you kind of have to leave the nit-picky inner critic at the door, when you read a ballad or you listen to a ballad – you have to listen with your heart. And it’s one of the things I love about poetry in general and ballads in particular – if it’s the real thing, it’s got to come from the heart or from the from the hip, rather than the head.

And on we go:

‘I’ll do as much for my sweetheart
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all on her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.’

So this is old England, isn’t it? The sweetheart lying ‘in greenwood’, the ‘twelvemonth and a day’. And it’s a very obviously poetic, somewhat histrionic scene, with the grieving lover throwing himself on the grave for a year and a day. And as we should know from fairy stories, a year and a day is a magical period of time, and as so often in ballads, a doorway opens to the supernatural, because the dead woman starts to talk back. The grave is no longer quiet, it is unquiet! The young man has got his wish. He can hear the voice of his beloved once more:

When the twelvemonth and one day was past,
The ghost began to speak:
‘Why sittest thou here all day on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?’

So she’s not exactly pleased to be woken up! But he’s undaunted and tells her what he wants:

‘There’s one thing that I want, sweetheart,
There’s one thing that I crave;
And that is a kiss from your lily-white lips ––
Then I’ll go from your grave.’

And obviously in each stanza we can hear the classic ballad metre that I’ve talked about in other episodes, with a four beat line followed by three beats. So if I exaggerate for emphasis:

‘There’s one thing that I want, sweetheart,
There’s one thing that I crave;

You know very often when you’re reading poems aloud, you have to decide whether to emphasise the regular beat of the metre or whether to go with the natural rhythm of speech. So if I were reading this naturally, I would say ‘There’s one thing that I want, sweetheart’. I wouldn’t stress the ‘that’ in ‘that I want’, and I would stress ‘sweetheart’ on the first syllable. But to do the ballad justice I need to let that regular beat take over, almost the way a singer will distort the pronunciation of a word to fit the tune. You’re kind of on the verge of singing with a ballad, because of course it was originally a song.

So anyway. He says he wants a kiss from her lily-white lips. But she’s not having any of it, is she?

‘My breast it is as cold as clay,
My breath smells earthly strong;
And if you kiss my cold clay lips,
Your days they won’t be long.

It’s hardly an aphrodisiac is it? And again, you have to admire the sheer economy of the ballad. Let’s remember that this is the end of the poem in some versions, so to finish with ‘your days they won’t be long’ – I mean, could it be more clipped? Could it be more severe? This is poetry worn down to the bone, if you’ll forgive the pun.

And very often ballads are like this, they’re like a pebble that’s been worn smooth by being passed through so many different hands. There’s one theory that a lot of ballads were originally longer and more detailed, but what has survived over the generations is the highlights, the essential details that are necessary for the story, and all the extraneous details have been lost along the way. And some ballads are a lot longer than this, but even then the narrative style still feels quite abrupt. Every stanza is like a little scene. It’s like an animation, you know, the old fashioned animation when there’s not many frames per second and you can see all the jumps.

I also think of the ballad as being like a skeleton horse that carries you away. It’s the bare bones of poetry. You can hear the metre as the clip-clopping of the hooves, and see the lines as the bones and you can see through the skeleton, there’s not much there, but it can spirit you away and you’d better hold on tight. And it’s a macabre image but it’s also enchanting in the original sense. There are lots of great ballads about people being enchanted by fairies or elf queens or kings or and kidnapped and taken away on horseback.

So that line ‘Your days they won’t be long’ is the end of some versions of the ballad, but like I say we’ve got the extended remix today. And what we get in the extra stanzas is very interesting indeed:

‘Go fetch me water from the desert,
And blood from out of a stone;
Go fetch me milk from a fair maid’s breast
That a young man never had known.’

So she’s setting him an impossible task: you can only have your kiss if you can fetch water from a desert and blood from a stone and milk from a virgin’s breast.

And this is reminiscent of the riddles that are often set as challenges to the hero in fairy stories. Or the riddle of the Sphinx, the mythical creature who guarded the entrance to the ancient Greek city of Thebes and wouldn’t let travellers enter the city unless they could solve the riddle.

Back in episode 18 we talked about the riddle in relation to Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘It sifts from Leaden Sieves’, but that was the riddle as a harmless parlour game. Now we’re in the realm of riddles that are magical and dangerous. Because what the Sphinx or the gatekeeper is really saying to the hero is: are you ready to cross this threshold and face whatever lies on the other side? And solving the riddle is a sign that the hero is ready for that transition.

But in this case, we have what looks like an impossible riddle – there’s no way he can fetch water from the desert and blood from a stone and milk from a virgin. So it looks like a riddle without an answer. If Gollum were here he would no doubt say she was cheating!

Another old tradition I think we can detect here is the testing of a lover after the death of their partner. There are lots of ancient stories and myths of heroes and heroines and gods and goddess going down into the underworld to rescue their lover from the clutches of death.

Famously, the poet Orpheus made the descent and managed to charm Hades, the god of the underworld, by playing his lyre – maybe he even recited a ballad! And Hades felt sorry for Orpheus and said he could take Eurydice back to the land of the living, on one condition – that he did not look back at her as he was leading her up to the surface. And – spoiler alert! – he forgot this at the crucial moment, and lost her all over again.

So what we have in ‘The Unquiet Grave’ is the convergence of two very ancient traditions: the gatekeeper’s riddle as a magical challenge; and the testing of the lover who is trying to rescue their partner from the kingdom of death. In other words, death is the riddle without an answer.

And faced with this, it’s clear that he isn’t ready to pass the test:

‘O down in yonder grove, sweetheart,
Where you and I would walk,
The first flower that ever I saw
Is withered to a stalk.

‘The stalk is wither’d and dry, sweetheart,
And the flower will never return;
And since I lost my own sweetheart,
What can I do but mourn?

‘When shall we meet again, sweetheart?
When shall we meet again?’

So he’s s still in the posture of the distraught lover, he’s wallowing in his grief. In his defence he’s doing it in utterly memorable poetry. Particularly that stanza, ‘O down in yonder grove, sweetheart’ – that gets me every time.

But she is unmoved by his appeals, and responds to his question, ‘When shall we meet again?’ with another enigmatic answer:

‘When the oaken leaves that fall from the trees
Are green and spring up again,
Are green and spring up again.’

This is yet another impossible riddle. Because the leaves that fall from the trees are not going to turn green and they’re not going to spring up again. And this means that, like Orpheus, he’s faced with losing her twice: at the start of the poem, he is devastated by the loss of his beloved and trying to recover her. And then his wish comes true and she starts talking back to him.

But, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for… because it turns out she has changed. She’s on a different plane of existence and understanding. So when she speaks to him it’s in riddles and enigmas. She’s pushing him back and she’s essentially saying ‘I’ve moved on from the likes of you, we’re not the same any more’. And this is his second loss, realising that the person he thought she was no longer exists, even though he can hear her voice.

And quite a few commentators, including Francis Child, have interpreted the poem as an admonition against excessive grief – Child points out that the idea that too much grieving is a nuisance to the dead goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. Because really, what the lover should be doing is honouring his loss and then getting back on with his life. And the ghost is telling him that. And we can be pretty sure his friends have told him the same thing, and his mum and dad and his boss. ‘You need back to work my lad. And back out courting again, plenty more fish in the sea.’

So that’s one interpretation of the poem, a slightly moralistic or at least down to earth and common sense reading of it. But being a poet of a somewhat Romantic cast, I’m also going to suggest there’s also another way we can read this poem, which is that on one level, the words from beyond the grave are indeed a closed door. A stop sign. Telling the young man: ‘You can’t go any further. It’s impossible for us to be together again.’

But if we go with the idea that her words are a challenge, and that she is posing death as a riddle, then logically, a riddle is there to be solved and it must have an answer. So maybe, in this paradoxical world she’s describing, it is possible to get water from the desert and blood from a stone. And according to the Christian tradition – which the author of this ballad would have been very familiar with – then once upon a time there really was a virgin who suckled a baby with milk from her breast.

I also can’t help thinking about the koans used by Zen masters to challenge students to let go of their rational, logical way of seeing the world. Famous examples are the sound of one hand clapping or ‘What is your original face, before your mother or father were born?’. Well, on the logical plane, there’s no answer to that. But the Zen masters assure us that there is an answer and if you can attain satori, insight, then you can answer the impossible question.

So let’s have another look at the closing lines of ‘The Unquiet Grave’:

‘When the oaken leaves that fall from the trees
Are green and spring up again,
Are green and spring up again.’

This reminds me of another ballad, ‘John Barleycorn’, about the spirit of the crops in the field, that are cut down each year and ploughed into the ground and then magically spring back to life (and, the ballad goes on, are made into beer and whisky, but that needn’t detain us today). And it opens with these lines:

There came three men from out of the West,
Their victory to try;
And they have taken a solemn oath
Poor Barleycorn should die.

They took a plough and ploughed him in,
And harrowed clods on his head;
And then they took a solemn oath
Poor Barleycorn was dead.

There he lay sleeping in the ground
Till rain from the sky did fall;
Then Barleycorn sprung up his head,
And so amazed them all.

So obviously, this is the miracle of nature, the cycle of death and rebirth and renewal, which has been the source of so many myths involving gods and goddesses and spirits representing plants – and following in their wake, endless poems on the same theme, from antiquity to Philip Larkin’s ‘The Trees Are Coming into Leaf’.

So in my reading of ‘The Unquiet Grave,’ there is a double-edged quality to the end of the poem: on the one hand, it’s devastatingly sad, it’s about death and the separation of the lovers; but there is also more than a hint of rebirth and of trust in the cycle of life and death.

Because logically, the leaves are not going to come back to life and neither is the dead woman. But notice that the ending doesn’t say ‘If the oaken leaves… are green and spring up again’. It says when they do this. So grammatically at least, those words sound quite certain that this is going to happen. And that’s the way our brain interprets the syntax as we hear these lines.

This is something I picked up back in the day when I used to be a hypnotherapist. We were taught about negative suggestion. So for instance, if you say ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant!’ then of course you have to think of a pink elephant in order to process that sentence.

You have to create that image and then what your brain does is it adds a logical tag on, indicating that ‘this isn’t real’, but of course, in our mind’s eye we’re looking at this pink elephant all the while.

And so the negative suggestion that the poet has cunningly implanted in our minds via the final lines of the ballad, is of green leaves and green trees springing up again. So I don’t think it’s stretching it to say there’s an undercurrent of faith, or at least hope, that a miraculous reunion in a land of eternal spring may be possible after all.

And to me, that doesn’t negate the feelings of grief and devastation at all, it adds to them and makes the end of this ballad indescribably bittersweet and haunting.

Anyway. That’s my take on ‘The Unquiet Grave’. And it may not be yours. But that’s the beauty of ballads – we are free to make what we want of them, to reinterpret them or rewrite them or sing them to our own tune.

So like I say, do go out onto the internet and look up all the different versions of the text, and go to Spotify or the YouTube or your favourite independent folk music retailer and listen to all the different versions of the ballad. And maybe you could even write – or sing – your own version of ‘The Unquiet Grave’.

 


The Unquiet Grave

Anonymous

‘Cold blows the wind to my true love,
And gently drops the rain,
I never had but one sweetheart,
And in greenwood she lies slain.

‘I’ll do as much for my sweetheart
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all on her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.’

When the twelvemonth and one day was past,
The ghost began to speak:
‘Why sittest thou here all day on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?’

‘There’s one thing that I want, sweetheart,
There’s one thing that I crave;
And that is a kiss from your lily-white lips –
Then I’ll go from your grave.’

‘My breast it is as cold as clay,
My breath smells earthly strong;
And if you kiss my cold clay lips,
Your days they won’t be long.

‘Go fetch me water from the desert,
And blood from out of a stone;
Go fetch me milk from a fair maid’s breast
That a young man never had known.’

‘O down in yonder grove, sweetheart,
Where you and I would walk,
The first flower that ever I saw
Is withered to a stalk.

‘The stalk is wither’d and dry, sweetheart,
And the flower will never return;
And since I lost my own sweetheart,
What can I do but mourn?

‘When shall we meet again, sweetheart?
When shall we meet again?’
‘When the oaken leaves that fall from the trees
Are green and spring up again,
Are green and spring up again.’

 


‘Anon’

‘The Unquiet Grave’ is an anonymous ballad. The version I’ve read today is from One Hundred English Folksongs, edited by Cecil Sharp and published in 1916.

Anonymous works are often marked in anthologies with the abbreviation ‘Anon’. Virginia Woolf once wrote, ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman’ and imagined her making ‘the ballads and the folk-songs, crooning them to her children, beguiling her spinning with them, or the length of the winter’s night’.

Following Woolf’s playful suggestion, if we imagine Anon to be a single person, of whatever gender, we could make a credible case that they are the greatest writer in English.

We’ll never know who composed ‘The Unquiet Grave’. On the evidence, it looks like there were at least two different poets involved in the version I’ve read today. But maybe we could take a moment to remember all the anonymous poets and singers who have enriched our language with unforgettable poetry, story and song.

 

 


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

You can have a full transcript of every new episode sent to you via email.

The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

Listen to the show

You can listen and subscribe to A Mouthful of Air on all the main podcast platforms

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Related Episodes

The Kraken by Alfred Tennyson

Episode 36 The Kraken by Alfred Tennyson Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘The Kraken’ by Alfred Tennyson.Poet Alfred TennysonReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessThe Kraken by Alfred Tennyson Below the thunders of the upper deep;Far, far beneath in the abysmal...

Ə [Schwa] by Paul Blake

Episode 35 Ə [Schwa] by Paul Blake  Paul Blake reads ‘ə [Schwa]’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.This poem is from: A Massacre of Hummingbirds by Paul Blake Available from: A Massacre of Hummingbirds is available from: The publisher: Stonewood Press...

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Episode 34 Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.Poet Samuel Taylor ColeridgeReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessKubla Khan Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment. by Samuel Taylor Coleridge...

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

1 + twelve =

Arts Council England logo