Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Oxford Book of Ballads

I bought a very beautiful copy of the Oxford Book of Ballads about a year ago and there is one ballad in particular that fascinates me. It is called The Cruel Mother and is about a mother that kills her newly born kids.

The Cruel Mother

She lean'd her back unto a thorn;
Fine flowers in the valley
And there she has her two babes born
And the green leaves they grow rarely


She's ta'en the ribbon frae her hair
And bound their bodies fast and sair


'Smile na sae sweet, my bonny babes,
An' ye smile sae sweet, ye'll smile me dead

'And, O bonny babes, if ye suck sair,
Ye'll never suck my side mair.'

She's ta'en out her little penknife
And twinn'd the sweet babes o' their life.


She's howket a grave baith deep and wide,
And there she's buried them side by side.


She’s buried them baith beneath the brier,        15
And washed her hands wi’ mony a tear.
 
VIII

‘O ay, my God, as I look to thee,
My babes be atween my God and me!
 
IX

‘And ay their smiles wad win me in,
But I am borne down by deadly sin.’        20
 
X

She’s cover’d them o’er wi’ a marble stane,
Thinking she wad gang maiden hame.
 
XI

She lookit out owre her castle wa’
And saw twa naked boys play at the ba.’
 
XII

‘O bonny boys, gin ye were mine
        25
I wad cleed you in silk and sabelline.
 
XIII

‘O I would dress you in the silk,
And wash you ay in morning milk.’—
 
XIV

‘O mother dear, when we were thine,
You didna prove to us sae kind.        30
 
XV

‘O cruel mother, we were thine
And thou made us to wear the twine.
 
XVI

‘But now we’re in the heavens hie,
  Fine flowers in the valley
And ye have the pains o’ hell to drie’—        35
  And the green leaves they grow rarely;
Ten thousand times good night and be wi’ thee!


She’s buried them baith beneath the brier,        15
And washed her hands wi’ mony a tear.

She's buried them baith beneath the brier,
And washed her hands wi' mony a tear.

'O ay, my God, as I look to thee,
My babes be atween my God and me!

'And ay their smiles wad win me in,
But I am borne down by deadly sin.'

She's cover'd them o'er wi' a marble stane
Thinking she wad gaing maiden hame.

She lookit out owre her castle wa'
And saw twa naked boys play at the ba.'

'O bonny noys, gin ye were mine
I was cleed you in silk and sabelline.

'O I would dress you in the sil,
And wash you ay in morning milk.'

'O mother dear, when we were thine,
You didna prove us sae kind.

'O cruel mother, we were thine
And thou made us to wear twine.

'But now we're in the heavens hie,
Fine flowers in the valley
And ye have the plains o' hell to drie'
And the green leaves they grow rarely;
Ten thousand times good night and be wi' thee!

First a glossary:
  • Twinn'd: robbed, deprived
  • Cleed: clothe (verb)
  • Sabelline: sable
  • Twine: twine-cloth, shroud
I am always puzzled by this ballad, because I think it's theme is very powerful. What happens is that this woman gives birth to two litte babies and then kills them. I don't think she wanted to do this, because of the line:
"And washed her hands wi' mony a tear"
No mother would want to kill her children, so there must be some motive, like a lack of money, or maybe she's supposed to be a virgin. Ir probably wasn't the first, because she is said to watch out over the castle walls, yet this could, of course, not be her castle. She talks about how this is a 'deadly sin'. She covers their bodies with a marble stone and then wants to go home, but stops because she sees two little boys playing. She then laments on how she would have taken care of the boys, had they been hers. She says she would clothe them in 'silk and sabelline', although she obviously didn't have the means to do so.
Then the kids talk to her and say that when they had been hers she didn't treat them to well and that she was a cruel mother. They condemn her to hell, while they go to heaven.

I don't understand the moral of this story. Of course you have to take into account that it was written quite some time ago and that the society around that time was completely different from our society now.
The woman, as I said before, killed her babies because she either didn't want them or simply couldn't afford them. I don't think it is fair to condemn the woman to hell in this story. Imagine if she had kept her children and they would have had to life in poverty. Would that have been better?

Snooping around on YouTube I found this song. This is, with a slightly altered text, the ballad. This song is by Mick Harris & Martyn Bates from the aptly named album Murder Ballads.


It's quite scary actually, but it does show how this ballad can be interpreted!

What do you think if the ballad and the song?

Song is by Mick Harris & Martyn Bates, album Murder Ballads.
Ballad from 'The Oxford Book of Ballads'.

She's buried them baith beneath the brier,
And washed her hands wi' mony a tear

'O ay, my God, as I look to thee,
My babes be atween my God and me!

'And ay their smiled wad win me in,
But I am borne down by deadly sin,'

She's cover'd them o'er wi' a marble stane,
Thinking she wad gang maiden hame.

She lookit out owre her castle wa'
And saw twa naked boys play at the ba.'

'O bonny boysm gin ye were mine
I was cleed you in silk and sabeline.

'O I Would dress you in the silk,
And wash you ay in the minring milk.;-

'O mother dear, when we were thine,
You didna prove us sae kind.

'O cruel mother, we were thine
And thou made us to wear twine.

'But now we're ion the heavens hie,
Fine flowers in the valley
And ye have the pains o' hell to drie'
And the green leaves they grow rarely;
Ten thousand times good night and be wi' thee!

Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. (1863–1944

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