Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Friday, November 1, 2013

Lady Maisry



In language, theme, and style, “Lady Maisry” is representative of the ballad tradition. Though much literary criticism, even of oral materials, privileges innovation and individuality while minimizing the value of similarities between a text and others, such common elements may be centrally important, particularly in the case of popular genres. This may be exemplified by a consideration of this classic song, in many ways a typical border ballad.

Since the text was first transcribed from oral performance in 1799 “for his own amusement” by a Greek professor with antiquarian tastes, it has proven quite popular. It appears not only as Childs ballad 65 and in Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1910 Oxford Book of Ballads, but in such non-scholarly journals as Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine. [1] In academic circles it has acquired variations, sources, and influences while, ever since the sixties, it has never lacked interpreters among modern folk-style performers. [2]

The emotional focus is one of the most popular world-wide, evoking an exceedingly old gender stereotype: the persecuted lady, familiar from Greek tragedy, Yuan dynasty plays, and The Perils of Pauline. Just as the favorite theme of lyric is romantic love, commonly obstructed or unrequited, in the sentimental and melodramatic ballad genre, love frequently inspires a tragedy marked by a loss of sexual purity. In the classic dodge used by Andreas Capellanus and the Pearl-Poet (in Cleanness) as well as by many exploitation filmmakers, one can describe every sort of immorality if one simply concludes by drawing a cautionary moral. Thus the listener is free to savor Lady Maisry’s grand affair and then to shiver in horror at the violence that follows.

A certain ambiguity is established at the outset as the Lady spurns the honorable suits of her fellow-countrymen who approached in a respectable manner through her family and gave her gifts. While her rejection of the “young lords o’ the north country” could signify arrogance, it might also be construed as indicating the purity of her love, independent of family or local ties. It is, at any rate, tempting fate, as the sequel demonstrates.

Indeed, she not only has chosen an English lover; she openly declares as much to the local lads, and this ill-advised candor sets the narrative in motion. A low menial, a “kitchy-boy,” relays the information that she is pregnant to her brother to whom the news is an intolerable disgrace requiring immediate and extreme action, an “honor killing” much like that expected of families in some contemporary Muslim cultures. He confronts his sister, threatening her with death unless she forsakes her lover.

In this dilemma, she calls on the aid of her lover Lord William through the agency of a loyal servant, but he arrives too late. She has been burned to death, and he resolves to burn her kin in revenge, and finally, unable to go on without her, to cast himself into the flames. The song ends with a thrill of horror and this vision of general conflagration.

The thematic emphasis falls heavily on the competing demands of the morality of love, where the lady and her William defy social convention yet behave in a romantically noble fashion, sacrificing all for passion. A possible patriotic theme vanishes as the English lord acquits himself well, sealing his tragic valor with a pledge of suicide. The representative of traditional values, the brother, concerned for the honor of the family, is portrayed in a wholly unattractive way, so harsh and unfeeling that his moral position is undermined. He threatens her with immediate death the moment he confronts her. [3] Similarly, the class issue is raised by the low status of the treacherous kitchen worker, ignoble in deeds as in birth, only to be canceled by the readiness of the “bonny boy,” certainly a servant or dependent, who carries her message to her champion. With these bipolar oppositions nicely balanced, the story of star-crossed love may play out.

The song thus insists on the primacy of desire – there is no denying the lady’s willful love-death. The issues of nationalism, morality, and class do not vanish but are subsumed in the ungovernable passion that drives the story. Received ideas govern: ladies are passive (if stubborn), males active to the point of violence. The manor-house setting raises interest in the story, as people today take a lively interest in the affairs of British royalty and Hollywood celebrities. Like viewers of many a modern movie, the listener to “Lady Maisry” can enjoy the second-hand experience of what must be understood as a story of sexual misconduct – after all, the lady’s liaison is secret and violates her obligations to Christian morality, family and community – without violating any norms. In fact, the song could pass for an object lesson in the damage potential of unloosed sexuality.

The charm of this particular song, I think, is that it provides all the reassuring affirmation of popular art while retaining knots of ambiguity. The simpler art will portray one hundred per cent heroes and villains. Here one can only react with some ambivalence to each of the three main characters. The lady who loves so well might seem a trifle stand-offish to her local suitors, what the troubadours called daungereux (not far from what a more modern idiom would condemn as “hincty”), while engaging in a secret and forbidden premarital liaison. The brother who represents the conventional morality that governs most listeners’ lives is cold and brutal. The lordly lover, while valiant and loyal, having failed to sweep her off to safety at his own estate, comes, in the end, only tardily to her aid. In spite of the formulaic plot, the song hints at the complexities of lived experience.

Further, while acknowledging the contradictions of gender, ethnicity, and class, the song spotlights desire as the primary motive force for life, the principal cause of conflict and drama. The governing opposition of the song is the lady’s reckless search for love and her brother’s conviction that he must control eros in the name of honor, however harsh the means. In the world of the ballad as in the Eden story and the real world, people suffer because if desire. The individual who has experienced this in life may, upon hearing the song, enjoy the role of spectator, relishing like the viewer of tragedy the fact that it is others who suffer this time while knowing that similar, if less lurid, calamities occur regularly.

While, like other popular and oral texts, “Lady Maisry” reinforces received ideas and accepted behavior, it also illustrates literature’s particular ability to reflect the contradiction, ambivalence, and mystery of lived experience. The listener is able at once to take pleasure in the sensationalism of an illicit affair and a gruesome denouement while feeling some kinship with the passionate lady, the moralistic brother, and the lover who fails to save his lady. Issues of gender, class, nationalism, family, and sexual purity fade, leaving the listener to reflect on the turbulence stirred by irresistible desire.


1. For January 1845.

2. John Jacob Niles collected it in 1934 in the Appalachians and vividly recreates the scene in his Ballad Book. A contemporary U.K. group not only recorded the song but calls itself Lady Maisery.

3. In an odd detail, he threatens to kill the messenger if the bad news he brings be a lie, yet also promises a “malison” or curse should the information be accurate.


I

THE YOUNG lords o’ the north country
Have all a-wooing gone,
To win the love of Lady Maisry,
But o’ them she wou’d hae none.

II

O they hae courted Lady Maisry 5
Wi’ a’ kin kind of things;
An’ they hae sought her Lady Maisry
Wi’ brooches an’ wi’ rings.

III

An’ they ha’ sought her Lady Maisry
Frae father and frae mother; 10
An’ they ha’ sought her Lady Maisry
Frae sister an’ frae brother.

IV

An’ they ha’ follow’d her Lady Maisry
Thro’ chamber an’ thro’ ha’;
But a’ that they cou’d say to her, 15
Her answer still was Na.

V

‘O haud your tongues, young men,’ she says,
‘An’ think nae mair o’ me;
For I’ve gi’en my love to an English lord,
An’ think nae mair o’ me.’ 20

VI

Her father’s kitchy-boy heard that,
An ill death may he dee!
An’ he is on to her brother,
As fast as gang cou’d he.

VII

‘O is my father an’ my mother well, 25
But an’ my brothers three?
Gin my sister Lady Maisry be well,
There’s naething can ail me.’—

VIII

‘Your father an’ your mother is well,
But an’ your brothers three; 30
Your sister Lady Maisry ’s well,
So big wi’ bairn gangs she.’

IX

‘Gin this be true you tell to me,
My malison light on thee!
But gin it be a lie you tell, 35
You sal be hangit hie.’

X

He ’s done him to his sister’s bow’r,
Wi’ meikle doole an’ care;
An’ there he saw her Lady Maisry
Kaiming her yellow hair. 40

XI

‘O wha is aught that bairn,’ he says,
‘That ye sae big are wi’?
And gin ye winna own the truth,
This moment ye sall dee.’

XII

She turn’d her right and roun’ about, 45
An’ the kame fell frae her han’;
A trembling seiz’d her fair body,
An’ her rosy cheek grew wan.

XIII

‘O pardon me, my brother dear,
An’ the truth I’ll tell to thee; 50
My bairn it is to Lord William,
An’ he is betroth’d to me.’—

XIV

‘O cou’d na ye gotten dukes, or lords,
Intill your ain country,
That ye draw up wi’ an English dog, 55
To bring this shame on me?

XV

‘But ye maun gi’ up the English lord,
Whan your young babe is born;
For, gin you keep by him an hour langer,
Your life sall be forlorn.’— 60

XVI

‘I will gi’ up this English blood,
Till my young babe be born;
But the never a day nor hour langer,
Tho’ my life should be forlorn.’—

XVII

‘O whare is a’ my merry young men, 65
Whom I gi’ meat and fee,
To pu’ the thistle and the thorn,
To burn this woman wi’?’—

XVIII

She turn’d her head on her left shoulder,
Saw her girdle hang on a tree; 70
‘O God bless them wha gave me that,
They’ll never give more to me.

XIX

‘O whare will I get a bonny boy,
To help me in my need,
To rin wi’ haste to Lord William, 75
And bid him come wi’ speed?’—

XX

O out it spake a bonny boy,
Stood by her brother’s side:
‘O I would run your errand, lady,
O’er a’ the world sae wide. 80

XXI

‘Aft have I run your errands, lady,
Whan blawn baith win’ and weet;
But now I’ll rin your errand, lady,
Wi’ saut tears on my cheek.’

XXII

O whan he came to broken briggs, 85
He bent his bow and swam,
An’ whan he came to the green grass growin
He slack’d his shoone and ran.

XXIII

O whan he came to Lord William’s gates,
He baed na to chap or ca’, 90
But set his bent bow till his breast,
An’ lightly lap’ the wa’;
An’, or the porter was at the gate,
The boy was i’ the ha’.

XXIV

‘O is my biggins broken, boy? 95
Or is my towers won?
Or is my lady lighter yet,
Of a dear daughter or son?’—

XXV

‘Your biggin is na broken, sir,
Nor is your towers won; 100
But the fairest lady in a’ the land
For you this day maun burn.’—

XXVI

‘O saddle me the black, the black,
Or saddle me the brown;
O saddle me the swiftest steed 105
That ever rade frae a town!’

XXVII

Or he was near a mile awa’,
She heard his wild horse sneeze:
‘Mend up the fire, my false brother,
It’s na come to my knees.’ 110

XXVIII

O whan he lighted at the gate,
She heard his bridle ring;
‘Mend up the fire, my false brother,
It’s far yet frae my chin.

XXIX

‘Mend up the fire to me, brother, 115
Mend up the fire to me;
For I see him comin’ hard an’ fast,
Will soon mend it up to thee.

XXX

‘O gin my hands had been loose, Willy,
Sae hard as they are boun’, 120
I would have turn’d me frae the gleed,
And casten out your young son.’—

XXXI

‘O I’ll gar burn for you, Maisry,
Your father an’ your mother;
An’ I’ll gar burn for you, Maisry, 125
Your sister an’ your brother.

XXXII

‘An’ I’ll gar burn for you, Maisry,
The chief of a’ your kin;
An’ the last bonfire that I come to,
Mysel’ I will cast in.’ 130

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