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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Foggy Dew as Symbol



To some, the idea of literary excellence is obsolete. Over fifty years ago Northrup Frye ridiculed “odious comparisons,” noting “We begin to suspect that the literary value-judgments are projections of social ones.” [1] From a political perspective opposite to Frye’s, advocates of cultural studies have sought to reduce the text to an exhibit like an object in nature. Yet still today one may encounter the old attitude that folk music is simple, a kind of lowest common denominator in contrast to the sophistication of high art or, on the other hand, the less common notion that the collective unconscious operates like an oracle, transmitting Truth mysteriously.

In fact any attempt to remove value from literary analysis flies in the face of every reader’s experience. One enjoys and admires some work more than others, and accounting for this subjective conclusion has long underlay criticism. Yet the fact remains that no critic has adequately rationalized the assignment of value. The old English song “Foggy Dew” is a “good” one if its popularity for centuries is any evidence. Variants have been collected across Britain as well as in Canada and the United States, and in recent times the song has often been recorded in both symphonic and folk versions. [2]

The image of the “foggy dew” binds the song and, like a title, provides a formula for its essence. Yet critics have often expressed either uncertainty about the meaning of the image or have advanced one of a surprisingly wide range of interpretations. In the realistic reading of the narrative the dew seems simply a humorously transparent excuse, a jocular euphemism, for the singer’s true motive. Here the foggy dew plays a role similar to the weather in Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” [3]

Within the text, though, a more complex progression is discernable. In the version used by Benjamin Britten [4] the initial reference is an exculpatory gesture with a bit of nervous iteration “And the only, only thing that I did that was wrong.” The second is more disturbing. The speaker seizes the woman, hauls her into bed and covers her head. The flimsiness of the pretext is clear, the impetuous action all the more aggressive in light of the woman’s apparent helplessness (What shall I do?) Then at last the image appears in a warm nostalgic glow as the son in his shop reminds him of his erotic joy of the past. Here the reference to “many, many” encounters highlights the artificiality of the already shameless use of “foggy dew” simply to indicate a sexual experience. One sees depicted the ordinary course of a sexual episode: first irresistible desire, then a push for mastery, followed by pleased reflection.

In the composite of American versions by James Reeves [5], very much the same series series may be traced, from the delicately stated “I thought it my time to roll her in my arms” through a hint of coercion, this time on the woman’s part (“I’m resolved to stay with you”), to an apparently happy marriage with a large family in prospect. Reeves comments on the meaning of the title image and decides that it implies “protracted virginity.” Noting that “fogge” could be used “for coarse, rank grass of the kind that grows in marshes and bogs where the atmosphere would be damp and misty,” he concludes that this untrimmed vegetation corresponds to “protracted virginity” (as mowing might mean sex).[6] He collects references in which to him dew implies chastity, beginning with its repeated use in “I sing of a maiden that is makeles.”


He cam also stille
Ther His moder was,
As dew in Aprille
That falleth on the gras.


Apart from the fact that reading both “fog” and “dew” as meaning virginity would make the title a reduplication, the verse clearly associates Mary not with the dew but with the grass (in the subsequent verses with a flower and with a springtime “spray”) It is the male lover, the divine Christ, who, as in a host of Biblical passages (such as Gideon’s fleece) is represented by the fructifying dew. The church fathers do not mention the obvious association of dew with semen. [7]
The fact remains, whatever associations one infers for the foggy dew, that its use is not strictly consistent any interpretation. For all the sexual innuendo the first occurrence of the term in Britten version says that when the speaker was with his beloved he did not think of the foggy dew. A version collected in Newfoundland concludes “We'd both give up to sow no more but think on the foggy dew,” implying that the thought of the dew has displaced sexual activity. [8] On the other hand, Sharp heard one version that makes the most direct sexual meaning explicit:

And ev-er-y time she cocks her leg,
I thinks of the fo–o–ggy de-ew.

In one of the early broadside variants the dew is realistic, simply the ground on which the two make love: “And many a night I roll’d her in my arms,/All over the Foggy dew.” [9] Another more or less rationalized version has the lover conspire with a friend to impersonate a demon and drive the woman into his room. Reeves quotes a version from Sharp in which men’s affection is said to resemble the foggy dew in its evanescence, saying that this “eliminates the essential spirit of the song.”
Some researchers have sought to discover the meaning of the foggy dew through Celtic vocabulary and pre-Christian belief. A 1689 broadside and a number of American versions substitute “bugaboo” (or Boglemaroo, Boglebo, etc) for “foggy dew” suggest
that the supernatural aids the seduction, while in Britten’s version, in which the man is left with a son but no lover, might imply that she was herself a spirit.

Numerous writers have pursued the decoding of this image, yet it seems clear that so single reading works. The fact is that the foggy dew is a symbol in the sense of an image whose strength derives in part from its indeterminacy. The fundamental connotation of foggy dew with fertility and mystery are exploited in most uses of the term, but it is never limited. The complex relationships between the man and the woman, between the man and the environment, and the cosmos (represented by the supernatural beings) are suggested but not determined by the image. It is carefully balanced to be attractive (fertile, sexual) and disagreeable (cold, associated with illness and danger). The very ambiguity of the dew replicates the ambivalence of each of the relationships evoked. Thus, if the woman is at once a beautiful love object and a frightening menace, so likewise is the man. If life appears unpredictable and hazardous it is also satisfying and seductive. The world is full of invitation and threat. The very fact that such propositions could be multiplied nearly without end signifies not the incoherence of the poem, but its precise correspondence to our experience of daily reality. More highly determined images will necessarily lose a good deal of the accuracy and emotional charge of this “vague” one.

The same sort of vagueness was consciously prescribed by the Symbolist poet. Jean Moréas’ Symbolist Manifesto, while calling Zola’s Naturalism “ puerile,” goes on to say, “Symbolist poetry tries to house the Idea in a meaningful form not its own end, but subject to the Idea. The latter in its turn will never appear without the sumptuous clothing of analogy; for the essential character of Symbolist art consists in never going so far as to conceive of the Idea in itself. So this art will never show details of nature, actions of humans, concrete phenomena: for they are only the appearances destined to represent to the senses their esoteric affinities with primordial Ideas.”

Among folklore scholars, M. J. C. Hodgart is almost unique in his recognition of this technique. “However much of the force of ballad imagery comes from our apprehension of its meaning, a great deal nevertheless comes from the very fact that the meaning is not clearly understood at all” [10]



1. Anatomy of Criticism, Polemical Introduction.

2. Benjamin Britten set it to music and Burl Ives made a pop tune of it. This song is not to be confused with two other songs of the same name: the quite different overblown Irish song with its unlikely happy ending Oh, a wan cloud was drawn o'er the dim weeping dawn nor the later Nationalist anthem commemorating the Easter Rising As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I.

3. The song was recorded by many, including Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, Armstrong and Velma Middleton, Pearl Bailey and Hot Lips Paige all in 1949.

4. When I was a bachelor, I liv'd all alone
I worked at the weaver's trade
And the only, only thing that I ever did wrong
was to woo a fair young maid.
I wooed her in the wintertime
And in the summer, too
And the only, only thing that I did that was wrong
Was to keep her from the foggy, foggy dew.

One night she came to my bedside
When I was fast asleep.
She laid her head upon my bed
And she began to weep.
She sighed, she cried, she damn near died
She said what shall I do?
So I hauled her into bed and covered up her head
Just to keep her from the foggy foggy dew.

So, I am a bachelor, I live with my son
and we work at the weaver's trade.
And every single time that I look into his eyes
He reminds me of that fair young maid.
He reminds me of the wintertime
And of the summer, too,
And of the many, many times that I held her in my arms
Just to keep her from the foggy, foggy, dew

5. The Idiom of the People.

6. Surely it is more natural to associate such growth with public hair, particularly when presented in conjunction with the dew’s moisture.

7. Consistent with Psalm 72, 6 and Isaiah XLV. 8. See also useful material from Peter of Celle and Honorius Augustodunensis in Michael Steffes’ “‘As dewe in Aprylle’: ‘I syng of a mayden’ and the liturgy” Medium Aevum spring 2002.

8. Published in Kenneth Peacock, Songs Of The Newfoundland Outports, Volume 2, pp. 518-519.

9. From the National Library of Scotland, viewable at http://digital.nls.uk/english-ballads/pageturner.cfm?id=74896969.

10. The Ballads, p. 37.

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