Before reading, you may find it exceedingly helpful to know that I’ve provided a large number of glosses just after the poem that you can refer to throughout for understanding. It’s not that different from English though and you can usually figure it out!
When the sheep are in the fauld, and the kye at hame, (1)
And a’ the warld to rest are gane,
The waes o’ my heart fa’ in showers frae my e’e,
While my gudeman lies sound by me.
Young Jamie lo’ed me weel, and sought me for his bride; (5)
But saving a croun he had naething else beside:
To make the croun a pund, young Jamie gaed to sea;
And the croun and the pund were baith for me.
He hadna been awa’ a week but only twa,
When my father brak his arm, and the cow was stown awa’; (10)
My mother she fell sick,–and my Jamie at the sea–
And auld Robin Gray came a-courtin’ me.
My father couldna work, and my mother couldna spin;
I toil’d day and night, but their bread I couldna win;
Auld Rob maintain’d them baith, and wi’ tears in his e’e (15)
Said, ‘Jennie, for their sakes, O, marry me!’
My heart it said nay; I look’d for Jamie back;
But the wind it blew high, and the ship it was a wrack;
His ship it was a wrack–Why didna Jamie dee?
Or why do I live to cry, Wae ‘s me? (20)
My father urgit sair: my mother didna speak;
But she look’d in my face till my heart was like to break:
They gi’ed him my hand, tho’ my heart was in the sea;
Sae auld Robin Gray he was gudeman to me.
I hadna been a wife a week but only four, (25)
When mournfu’ as I sat on the stane at the door,
I saw my Jamie’s wraith,–for I couldna think it he,
Till he said, ‘I’m come hame to marry thee.’
O sair, sair did we greet, and muckle did we say;
We took but ae kiss, and we tore ourselves away: (30)
I wish that I were dead, but I’m no like to dee;
And why was I born to say, Wae ‘s me!
I gang like a ghaist, and I carena to spin;
I daurna think on Jamie, for that wad be a sin;
But I’ll do my best a gude wife aye to be, (35)
For auld Robin Gray he is kind unto me.
Auld Robin Gray by Lady Anne Lindsay
The bonny lass who wrote this poem
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(1) kye: kine/cows, hame: home; (2) a’: all; (3) waes: woes, fa’: fall, frae: from;
(6) saving a croun: apart from a croun, a unit of Scottish currency; (7) To make a croun a pund: metaphorically, to make more money, as a pound, a British unit, was worth more, gaed: goed/went; (8) baith: both;
(9) twa: two; (10) brak: broke, stown: stolen;
(19) dee: die; (20) This should be read with quote marks: why do I live to cry, “Woe is me”?
(21) urgit sair: literally, ‘urged it sore’, although sair functions as an adverb so it can be read as ‘urged me sorely’; (23) gi’ed: gived/gave;
(26) stane: stone; (27) wraith: ghost;
(29) sair, sair: sorely, sorely, greet: cry, possibly also a pun on the English word, muckle: much; (30) ae: one;
(33) gang: go; (34) daurna: dare not; (35) aye: always
With huge thanks to the Scots dictionary.
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You have just witnessed one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful occurrences in English literature. Some guy necessarily put it to song a wee while after it was written. I came across this singer when I was trying to figure out how to pronounce the words authentically.
Lady Anne Barnard wrote the poem in 1772, her early twenties. It is unique in the English poetry tradition in that it’s a published work of a female writer (not that there aren’t others, just that others are more exceptions than the rule). Francis Palgrave, the editor of the classic Golden treasury of English verse, was sparse in his notes, yet he tersely records, with unwitting condescension, “There can hardly exist a poem more truly tragic in the highest sense than this, nor, perhaps, has any poetess known to the editor equalled it in excellence” (emphasis mine). Possibly Lady Anne’s success had something to do with her nobility, although the poem is also written in the Scots language, a Germanic origin, close relative of English, which although having a rich literary history bears the burden of being sourced in a people historically oppressed by the English.
The poem was written leading up to Romanticism, when literary figures started placing more emphasis and value on folk traditions. Scots-English relations were on the up and up, as the beginnings of the United Kingdom had been initiated about 65 years earlier. And Robert Burns, Scotland’s most celebrated poet, also wrote around this time.
Check out this site (scroll down to Lady Anne) for more information on context.
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The poem opens similarly to Thomas Gray’s foundational melancholy, Elegy written in a country churchyard, published earlier that century:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Both contain images of the stock settling down for the night as the world goes to rest, with the narrator, Jennie, left alone to contemplate the sorrows of life. It’s possible that Lady Anne borrowed from the classic, whether intentionally or no, as Elegy was an immediate and ongoing success when released 21 years earlier. In a more holistic sense, the two are similar in that they are both written by well-to-do people, reflecting on the sorrows of the rural underclasses.
Mickey and the Beanstalk, a slightly more modern example
Whatever the case, the blatant irony of Jennie’s situation is doleful: She is alone crying in her bed while her gudeman lies sound by me. As we progress through the poem, we discover the term gudeman does not so much represent an authentic feeling of Jennie towards her new husband. More so she refers to Auld Robin Gray as a good man out of reluctant resignation to her circumstances. He can give Jennie and her family security but he cannot give her the emotional engagement, even ‘love’ that she needs, because her heart was already given to another. Is it possible that this is a reflection of some subtle going-on in Lady Anne’s real life, a subject matter to which she was attracted to write with much more bombastic despondency?
In the second verse we are introduced to the young and hopeful Jamie. He knows nothing of the sorrows that will befall his intended bride-to-be while at sea, and therefore engages in his work with hope marrying her when it is complete. I think it’s almost bad form to speculate who has it worse off here. But I would say Jennie still takes the cake as she must spiral downwards into sadness as she progressively finds it difficult to care for her family and must resign to marriage to someone she doesn’t love, whereas Jamie is actually moving happily closer towards something he desires, albeit deceptively, and is let down all of a sudden when he is reunited with her after going to sea.
In the third verse we get a further glimpse of auld Robin Gray. His age is something that immediately distinguishes him from Jamie. Perhaps he has had some more time in life to ‘get ahead’ and make some financial successes, thus providing a good base for marital/familial support. Note the humour in his last name, Gray. He is given a title, with a full name, whereas Jennie and Jamie are only referred to on a first name basis. Doesn’t this show Jennie’s emotional distance to him, maybe even auld carrying a tone of scorn? The use of a last name could also denote some respectability on Robin’s part, as he is a bit older and carries financial/societal sway. Perhaps we need to be sympathetic to Robin’s situation as well. Was he a lonely old man, rejected in his youth, who was just seeking companionship? Yet he pursues someone who he will not successfully emotionally engage with, making clear the universal tragedy of the poem: No character receives what they sought, perhaps only Jennie’s mother and father, yet at the expense of their daughter’s happiness.
How seriously can we take Robin’s sincerity? In the fourth verse when he pleads Jennie marry him, wi’ tears in his e’e, what does this mean? He had clearly reflected upon the hopelessness of her parents’ situation. But how necessary was his marriage to her? If he really cared for Jennie as much as he did for her parents then maybe he could have continued to provide financial support and let her alone to await the homecoming of her man to be. Robin Gray comes onto the scene just when he needs to, when he knows that Jennie cannot say no. Why didn’t he come a’courtin‘ her a little earlier, when he could’ve given her heart a chance, instead of taking advantage of the position of power he was in? To Robin’s credit, if he was genuinely concerned about Jennie’s parents welfare, and made the necessary steps to provide for them, this may have aroused concern in the neighbourhood that there was some under the table trade-off going on, ie. Jennie. His imploring her to marry him allows him to more blamelessly support her and her family.
In the fifth verse we discover that Jamie’s ship is a wrack. Nature has made a mockery of Jennie’s last inhibition. She now has no reason not to marry Robin. Yet, I think it’s unclear whether or not Jennie knew Jamie was dead. In the next verse she evidently is still reluctant to marry Robin. Perhaps she is holding onto the hope that Jamie is still alive. The main contention comes with her question, Why didna Jamie dee? Is this a present reflection on something that happened not too long ago? Or is this evidence that at the time of hearing about Jamie’s accident, she also heard he was ok? I’d say the former, as it was probably used as a point of argument from Robin and Jennie’s parents to persuade her to marry. Also, when Jamie comes home not too long after, Jennie appears to think it his ghost (wraith). The question is worth more than that though. She seems to say that it would have been better her beloved die than for him to live and the two of them be apart.
In the sixth verse there is a repeat of gudeman, alluded to also in the closing line, For auld Robin Gray, he is kind unto me. As mentioned earlier, this signals Jennie’s resignation to her circumstances. She mourns the loss of marriage to her beloved, yet she must take some consolation, however unwillful, in the fact that Robin is a good husband and provider.
For me the seventh verse is the most tragic of the whole poem. Imagine Jamie, after his hard months at sea, come home to claim Jennie as his wife. Imagine his hopeful smile as he cuts straight to the chase, I’m come hame to marry thee. But at what moment does he realise something is not right? Does Jennie break into tears encountering his wretched deception? Worse, is he blissfully unaware, thinking rather that his forward proposal was received with such joy and emotion that Jennie couldn’t withhold from weeping? Surely he must have an inkling upon seeing her once again, as she is mournfu‘ when he arrives. Perhaps he is so unprepared for her sadness that his assertion of marriage is the only thing can think of to say. He proposes to her out of weakness. Or maybe he is trying desperately to cheer her up?
Now we are left with Jennie in her life without love. It has lost all meaning and colour that her previous affection afforded it. Even simple tasks like spinning are difficult. She has too much of a conscience to dwell on her lost opportunity. And she only desires her death. Well! I hope you enjoyed the analysis! There’s something strangely, deeply appealing to me about the poem. If you have any further questions or speculations, please let me know in the comments section.
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